Teaching with Archives Approaches: Getting Stuck in "The Middle"
Updated: May 24
The “Before,” “Middle,” and “After” of Archival Research
When I design courses for Northeastern University Archives and Special Collection's Teaching with Archives program, I am very focused on getting people comfortable and introduced to the “in the middle feeling” of archival research. The moment when you have the box, you have the folder, and you now need to figure out how to emotionally and intellectually deal with what’s in front of you. This becomes especially true when I am teaching a one-off session, and even more so when I am connecting to students in a virtual remote session.
It is easy to get caught up in “the before” of an archival visit: finding the right collection, navigating the finding aids, requesting materials. But that usually is best learned when someone already has an idea in mind, a research topic or question, or a curiosity. The mechanics of the before of archival research can be taught through existing resources like Dorothy Berry's and Betts Coup’s “The How’s and Why’s of Finding Aids,” or a PDF handout or video tutorial on how to use your specific finding aid user-interface or digital repository.
Likewise “the after,” or the citations, digitizations requests, copyright questions, and research organization required of archival research, is something that can be generally taught in an asynchronous tutorial model like a video or guided PDF. “The After” of archival research can even be a couple of synchronous tips to take notes about what folder or box you are in, to save citation information as you go and format it later, or a shared sample form of how to reach out to an archivist with a question. But generally, “the after,” whether you are a student, faculty member, or otherwise, is ultimately a journey not contended with until the archival material has been found and explored.
Processing, unpacking, and navigating the archival material right in front of you, or “the middle,” is difficult to detail in a PDF, or narrate in an asynchronous resource. Whether classes are gathered in a reading room or a Zoom classroom, it is still necessary to teach methods of archival navigation or the archival echolocation necessary to tell a story.
In a synchronous class, I prioritize giving participants the mindset and questions necessary to help them develop their own method of processing their initial reactions of confusion, excitement, and even disappointment when interacting with an archival record. relatively generally, as those in the class session were viewing different materials, processing different reactions and questions inspired by the contents of the folder they selected. Remote sessions allowed for us all to read the same material together, and process in community.
Strengthening “The Middle” through Remote Instruction
Teaching students to navigate “the middle” of archival research begins with a foundation of strategically asking questions of the people, places, events, and ideas inside a record. Then, seeing the places it can take you through further questions or reactions. When examining records in class, I will share a record on my screen. I also offer a link to a Google Drive so that students can look along with me. Instead of quietly staring at a screen, I will either read a document aloud or play a recording.
Listening to records together is a strategy I use in a remote session to create an investment in the records and perhaps an increased sense of responsibility to interact with records more meaningfully. This can start by listening to a document being read aloud, or if the resources are there and the interview is relevant, listening to an oral history. We are all listening to each other so much through Zoom, hearing voices come in and out, much like outside of a pandemic, we often interface with material objects like newspapers, fliers, handouts, that document our day-to-day, that listening to an oral history helps bring a sensation of listening to learn and understand, that students have already been having to do on a high level throughout their whole remote learning experience.
After I have read, I ask: “What is something that’s interesting to you and what questions do you have about this document?” We then go further and ask, “can you think of any other type of record that might give you an answer to your question? Or might help you tell a different (more expansive) story?” This question usually gets responses asking for photographs, or interviews to hear and see the people represented in the records they are introduced to.
And this could be enough. This could be done with one document. But usually in a session I select two or three different records to think about how memory, stories, and history are affected by the source material. The questions don’t change with each document, aside from growing more comparative, referencing the other records, building a narrative from the archival material and some assumptions (that may require further research). We begin to consider how a photograph of the same event a flyer documents gives a researcher a completely different story to extract.
My focus on the middle is not just to focus on what is ostensibly the most fun part of the archival visit, but also try to rid the overwhelm and anxiety that can often be synonymous with archival research. I express to participants that “in this session you do not need to remember everything, but just need to be present for a process that may be similar to what you might experience researching on your own.”
There are so many things that can get lost over a Zoom meeting due to an internet connection, a pet hopping on a screen, or plain and simple fatigue. There should be no expectation that if you didn’t hear it here first you won’t know how to do anything next. Instead the sessions allows students to practice a way of holding a mental space, a way of archival navigation that can help you see and understand the records in new ways, no matter how many times you ask: “What questions do I have?”