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Archives and Special Collections Can Teach Students Archival Intelligence, Even Online


Melissa Salrin
Head, Special Collections and Rare Books, Simon Fraser University

For historians, time spent in the archives with primary sources is vital.  For students of history, this time is no less important: it provides an opportunity to hone their research skills and to develop and investigate original, properly scoped research questions.  What is an educator to do when in-person class visits to archives are not possible?  There are of course many library subscription-based digital collections or other freely available online resources.  Many universities have robust digitization programs in place to feature more local holdings—for example, SFU Library Digitized Collections. Faculty should contact their liaison librarians for assistance with identifying online collections that may suit their course focus. In this post, however, I want to suggest another way forward, an exercise that considers the archives itself as a site of interrogation.  By adapting an in-person exercise, I hope to illustrate that hands-on, collaborative work with primary sources and institutional collections is still possible, even if in-person visits are not.

In Simon Fraser University Special Collections & Rare Books, we partner with subject-area faculty to provide students with an opportunity to think expansively and creatively about the nature of primary sources.  We frame our interactions around artifactual literacy and what has been termed archival intelligence.  While the former refers to knowing how to analyze and interpret the document and how to unpack its assumptions, the latter refers to the knowledge needed to navigate the space of the archives (e.g., knowing how to develop a well-formed search, understand archival theory and practices, and orient oneself to reading room rules and regulations).  Students of history must learn to understand the politics of the space itself and how archives as institutions imbue authority in their collections.

For any class visit, our introductory comments always position the archives as a site of investigation.  We encourage students to interrogate the power structures that undergird the institution and to think about the gaps that exist in archival holdings; in many ways, silences and absences demonstrate sociocultural biases that devalue specific populations’ histories.  A good example of this approach in action can be found in our work collaborating over several semesters with history faculty members on a course visit for history honours students.  (This course is taught by a different faculty member each term.)  During the sessions, archivists provided students with an introduction to our repository, including practical information regarding the extent of our holdings and broader information about our collecting mandate and how it connects to larger institutional goals. After a quick explication of how archives and libraries differ and a march through strategies for finding sources (e.g., mining works cited, consulting reference librarians, considering online collections or printed sources), we completed a hands-on activity designed around artifactual literacy.  While our in-person session provided access to Bhag Singh’s British Indian passport from 1927, all students were given colour photocopies to examine. Students were prompted to consider not simply the information recorded in the passport but also the assumptions encoded in the structure of the document.  For example, we discussed how the format of the passport structured responses (e.g., passport holders could insert their pronouns but there was a standard typed reference to a wife and children in the document that could be ignored if not applicable).  We noted how heteronormativity was encoded in the structure of the document; this raised questions about how citizenship and gender functioned at this particular moment in the British empire. The key takeaway here was to demonstrate the importance of unpacking the structure of the document.

After focusing on structure, we transitioned to an exercise about finding aids.  This activity asked them to consider seven key questions about different finding aids in our holdings.  The archivist selected 5 different finding aids and randomly assigned these to the students. The particular five finding aids were selected based on the following factors: collection-level description versus more granular description; different material formats and thus different access/handling requirements; inclusion of restricted information necessitating research agreements; and finally, demonstration of different descriptive practices because the finding aids had been produced at different moments in the division’s history.

Students were given 20 minutes to examine their assigned finding aid and to consider:

1.     How is the document structured?  What information is called out about the materials?

2.     How is the material arranged?  Where did the arrangement scheme come from?

3.     Are there any access restrictions?  On what?  What do you do if you want to see those materials?

4.     What do you think are the most important features of the finding aid for a researcher?

5.     What can we learn about the institution from the finding aid?  Is there any information that isn’t included that you think would be helpful to the researcher?

6.     Archivists arrange and describe collections or fonds.  What evidence do you see that this finding aid offers an interpretation versus a description?

7.     How would you cite this material?

Through the conversation that followed, students deepened their understanding of archival theory and practice by identifying key features of finding aids such as name of creator, title, date range, historical note, scope and content note, organization and arrangement, and controls on access.  They compared and contrasted different finding aids and noted that some were lacking certain elements and others were incredibly detailed down to the item-level.  They noted how it would be advantageous to review finding aids in advance of finalizing their research topics since these documents would help them understand the extent and context of content available.  They began to grasp how the structure of the collection or fonds on offer would necessarily impact their navigation of these resources in their own research.  In short, they deepened their own archival intelligence.

In this in-person class, we then discussed the forms that structure archival interactions (i.e., reader registration forms, user request forms, copyright permission forms, research agreement forms) and offered practical advice and tips for a successful research experience (e.g., prioritizing requests, practicing good time management skills, asking for help from an archivist, etc.).  Does the online world completely mitigate these in-person interactions? To what effects? These questions still need to be asked. While at present it may seem unnecessary to include this final section in an online class setting, the first two modules (i.e., the passport and finding aid exercises) can be successful, as I found for a graduate course on research methodologies in Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies this past spring.

The example exercises I’ve outlined above can help students gain a better appreciation for the constructed nature of archives/special collections and I welcome others to adapt these exercises for their own use.  I further encourage you to reach out to archivists/special collections librarians at your home institutions to further our shared goal that students become more savvy researchers.  Now, possibly more than ever, students need to learn how authority is constructed and contextual.  Archives and special collections are an ideal site to practice and engage with this knowledge.