Teaching Students How to Use Archival Sources

by | Feb 19, 2019

Scholars in virtually all academic fields study archival sources in some way, as do attorneys, organizers, artists, and cultural workers. Why, then, don’t we teach with them more often? As more and more special collections become available online, incorporating archival sources into a lesson plan is not only possible but also easy, at least when it comes to accessing materials.

Whether you choose to draw from digitized materials or take your class to a library, the most challenging and consequential part of teaching with archival sources is understanding the archive itself. What is an archive? What is at stake in our understanding of and engagement with it? These are, in my opinion, fundamental questions about knowledge production that students in every classroom should explore. Below are some reasons why teaching with archival sources is beneficial to students across the disciplines and interdisciplines as well as some pedagogical tips on how to do it well.

Introduce students to special collections

A few semesters ago, I assigned Toni Morrison’s novel Home (2012) and arranged for my class to visit the Toni Morrison Papers at Princeton University’s Harvey S. Firestone Memorial Library. In addition to checking out drafts of the novel, I wanted students to experience and ponder over the distinct handling guidelines for special collections.

A straightforward conversation about how the whole process differed from borrowing a book quickly led to deeper logistical and epistemological considerations: Why are special collections stored separately, in a sheltered location with environmental controls? Who decides what is or isn’t “special” and worthy of such preservation standards?

Teaching with archival sources is an effective way to discuss the purpose of archives, which you can link back to broader course topics like accessibility. It’s also an effective way to broach related and pressing issues like the repercussions of climate change for preservation practices both within and outside of the academy as well as the labor and environmental politics of digital preservation.

Enrich discussion of course topics

Archival sources add a layer of complexity to course topics even when they’re not centered in the syllabus. In fact, I recommend juxtaposing archival sources with a wide range of course materials.

For example, in an introductory gender and sexuality studies course, you might pair a textbook with the New York City Trans Oral History Project archive, which includes transcripts of recorded interviews. Doing so not only brings lived experiences to bear on structural problems, it also prompts a consideration of whose stories are consistently left out of dominant historical narratives.

Further, students may not know that there are different types of archives besides special collections (e.g., government archives) and that archiving or counter-archiving can be a form of activism in the present. The New York City Trans Oral History Project is a self-described “collective, community archive.” Community archives, often developed by and for community members, fill gaps in mainstream repositories.

Address issues of historical production

As Michel-Rolph Trouillot asserts in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1997), “any historical narrative is a particular bundle of silences” (27). Teaching with archival sources can give voice to gaps in mainstream repositories and, most importantly, get at why there are gaps in the first place. In other words, archival silences—particularly those that cannot be filled—demand critical conversations about the production of history.

Teaching with archival sources can offer a hands-on entry point for addressing how silence, absence, and erasure are constitutive of the archive itself. Students might even grapple with the question of redacted, disappeared, or destroyed documents. Although these issues are of utmost concern to librarians, students will learn that many scholars (including but certainly not limited to those in archival studies) have confronted the archive’s limits and contended with how violence shapes what can or cannot be known about the past. Relatedly, you might weave in a discussion of the potentials and limits of policies like the Protocols for Native American Archival Materials (2006).

Illustrate interdisciplinary research methods

You can actually find a lot of practical resources on teaching with archival sources via historical societies (e.g., the Brooklyn Historical Society’s TeachArchives.org) and archives themselves. For example, the Library of Congress has a page for educators, as does the National Archives. However, many of these resources focus on developing “archival literacy” and present fairly narrow frameworks for document analysis.

Teaching with archival sources provides an opportunity to teach interdisciplinary research methods that have significantly redefined archival theory and practice. For example, you can introduce students to Saidiya Hartman’s method of “critical fabulation” (pdf), which draws on narrative, or Tina Campt’s method of “listening to images,” which draws on sound and touch. Relatedly, you can introduce students to different conceptions of archives like Ann Laura Stoler’s approach to the “archive-as-subject” rather than a source, or Diana Taylor’s emphasis on performance and embodied practices as a “repertoire” that speaks to and against the archive.

Teaching with archival sources tackles fundamental questions about knowledge production by drawing attention to what Marisa Fuentes calls “the machinations of archival power.” Teaching with interdisciplinary archival sources can powerfully enrich students’ learning experience and invite students to re-imagine the archive as we know it.

Author: Tala Khanmalek

Tala Khanmalek is a contributing writer at Ideas on Fire as well as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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