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Teaching with Archival Materials

Information about using archival materials/primary sources in lesson plans and educational sessions.


Finding and Choosing Archival Materials

Finding Archival Materials

Collection Scope

Archives usually have a collection scope. This identifies the types of materials an archive collects. Not all archives collect all records; for instance, Santa Clara University's Archives & Special Collections collects records created by our university, but not by other universities. Similarly, a Civil War archives would not contain material from the Vietnam War. By looking at an archive's collection scope, you can determine whether or not that institution has archival materials related to your topic of interest. 

Finding Aids

Once you've identified an institution that has records on your topic, you can begin to look at specific collections or materials. Collections should have finding aids--documents that outline the subject, history, and contents of a collection. These may be general and only list the names and numbers of boxes and/or folders, or they could be very specific, and list each individual document included in a collection. Generally, popular collections have more detailed finding aids (because the collection is used a lot!). 

Digital Collections

Some institutions, like SCU, have digital collections. These are collections of documents and items that have been scanned and made available online. These usually include large, high-quality images of the archival materials and their metadata (the important information about each item). Digital collections can be great for class use, because you don't have to go to the archive in-person. Often, if the quality of the items is large enough, you can print surrogates for use in your classroom. Alternatively, if teaching online, you can share the direct links to the items with students, or have them search the collections themselves! 

Ask the Archivist

Finally, if you haven't found what you need by looking through a finding aid or digital collection, you may want to reach out to the archivist at an institution. Once you let them know what subject you're interested in, they may be able to suggest archival materials for you to use with your students.

Choosing Archival Materials

In the blog post Selecting Primary Sources for the Classroom: Considering Moment of UseLibrary of Congress 2015-16 Audio-Visual Teacher in Residence Tom Bober describes some of the ideas he keeps in mind when choosing primary sources for use in the classroom. Key ideas include:

  • materials students can quickly engage with
  • materials that capture students' interest and curiosity
  • materials that activate students' previous knowledge

The webinar Considerations for Selecting Primary Sources (54:55) provides information regarding strategies educators can use to select primary sources and provides tips on how to use sources to discuss difficult topics and include diverse viewpoints. 

For more information about finding and choosing archival materials, you can review the publication Using Archives: A Guide to Effective Research, written by Laura Schmidt and published by the Society of American Archivists.

Examining Archival Materials

Critically Examining Archival Materials

When we work with archival materials, we need to ask a number of questions about the materials. The answers to these questions will help us and our students to understand the motivations of the creators and what they were hoping to achieve. Questions to ask are as follows:

  • What materials are available and what materials are missing?
    • Archives are places of power. Past record-keepers made decisions about what to keep and what not to keep. Additionally, archives favor paper-based materials; cultures who utilize oral traditions such as storytelling may not have created materials that would have been kept in an archive. These factors can influence what materials are available in an archive. Archival silences refer to the voices that are missing from the archive. 
  • Who created the materials?
    • A person's political viewpoints, job position, nationality, race, and/or gender can affect what they record in a document. By understand the identity of the creator, we can get a better idea as to why they created the materials they created.
  • When were the materials created?
    • Traditions, ideas, and politics all change over time. Identifying the time period a material was created can give us an idea as to the meaning of the material. Additionally, time period may explain why documents may seem to be missing. For example, if you're researching the history of women students at SCU, you won't find any materials in the 1890s, because women students were not admitted at that time. 
  • Where were the materials created? 
    • Place of creation may also affect the meaning of materials. People in a certain places may have held common political views, which can help explain the content of the document.
  • For what purpose were the materials created (why)? 
    • Some materials may have been created simply to record information--for example, a news article or scientific report. Other materials may have been used by the creator to express themselves--for example, a journal. Some materials may have been created to accomplish certain goals or make certain claims. Researchers should examine the motivation behind the creation of materials to determine whether or not the materials were designed to make people think a certain way or accomplish a certain goal.

The following video (4:24) from History Note 'Stache provides a brief breakdown of analyzing primary sources: