The Appeal of the Archives: Engaging Students in More Meaningful Research
The Appeal of the Archives: Engaging Students in More Meaningful Research

A great deal of criticism has been heaped on the first-year composition research paper going back, at least, to Richard Larson’s objections to it in 1982 as a “non-form of writing.”1 These assignments often lead first year students to choose uncontroversial topics, to fail to make a compelling argument, to include unexamined presuppositions, and to insert random citations to meet the requisite number of sources.

Bringing students into the archives opens a new avenue for undergraduate research. By examining a small number of primary sources, my students develop close observation and reading skills that lead to more focused and nuanced arguments. To give students a greater stake in their writing, I purposefully choose documents that my students can connect to on a local and personal level. Because they are engaged in the subjects and intrigued by archival collections, students produce more interesting and meaningful research papers.

Over the last two years, several colleagues and I have developed and implemented a curriculum for “Pathways to Freedom: The Struggle for Freedom in Brooklyn,” a learning community with linked composition and history courses. At the heart of the year-long sequence is the study of archival documents related to key moments in local African American history.

To better understand the history of slavery and abolition in New York State, the students examine slave bills of sale and runaway slave ads from the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The following semester, the students use the Arnie Goldwag Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) collection and the Richetta Randolph Wallace papers to study the 20th century Civil Rights movement in Brooklyn.

The special collections library, as Sandra Roff (2007) suggests, is a place to find a “hidden history,” not just “a dusty room, filled with old, brittle documents, [but] … a place alive with endless possibilities.”2 In such collections, students can discover stories of less documented people and events, gaining an appreciation not only for a specific moment in history but also for the methods and goals of historical inquiry.

One of the goals of the learning community is to awaken a curiosity about local history and the causes of racial discrimination and inequality. By the end of the year, students should have developed basic research skills; they should be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources, develop research questions, integrate sources, and use library databases.

Looking at compelling documents from the past makes the research process more meaningful and personal for students. It also allows me to model essential document analysis skills: close reading, summarization, and interpretation.

The slow, intentional reading demanded by archival research is increasingly important in an information-saturated age nicely crystallized by the Internet slang TL;DR, or “Too Long; Didn’t Read” (a common student response to reading assignments). Reading a slave bill of sale in difficult-to-read script requires students to read slowly and closely – a stark contrast to the instant gratification they get from Facebook or other social media.

The partial story, fragmented and full of omissions, told by the archives invites students to ask probing questions about what can and cannot be gleaned from the historical record. For example, examining arrest records related to a 1963 Civil Rights protest provides many clues but few clear-cut answers to what happened that day.

Because students are engaged by the research topic, they are motivated to puzzle over the meanings of a document, to pose questions, and to find the answers by reading deeply and carefully in secondary literature. Thus students avoid making presuppositions based on superficial rehearsals of what they already know.

For example, one student’s interest in an NAACP book, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, in the Richetta Randolph Wallace papers led her to investigate the Jesse Washington lynching case in books by Robert Zangrando (1980) and Patricia Bernstein (2006).3 In her research essay, this student concludes, “Although [the NAACP] failed to bring the lynchers to justice, the effort to make [Hamilton’s] story known far and wide, and [to] raise awareness was a huge success. It was also the beginning of the battle against lynching that would last for years.”

Part of the archive’s appeal to my students is what Lucy Lippard refers to as the “lure of the local.”4 Students encounter documents that reveal the history of the very streets they walk, and they gain a sense of empathy for the historical actors they study.

Another student reflected, “Before…I had no idea what archival research was…. Examining actual slave bills of sale from the 1700s was amazing. I was in awe when I held actual documents that were produced during the time of slavery. I was also amazed at the fact that these documents were based on events that took place in Brooklyn, my hometown.”

Through their encounter with the archives, these students have learned to read closely, delve deeply, and connect personally and intellectually to their research. Their papers, which are qualitatively better than those I used to get, attest to the value of archival study as an exciting point of entry to the research process.

1) Richard Larson, “The ‘Research Paper’ in the Writing Course: A Non-Form of Writing,” College English vol. 44, no. 8 (December 1982): 811.

2) Sandra Roff, “Archives, Documents, and Hidden History: A Course to Teach Undergraduates the Thrill of Historical Discovery Real and Virtual,” The History Teacher vol. 40, no. 4 (August 2007): 557.

3) Robert L. Zangrando, The NAACP Crusade Against Lynching, 1909-1950 (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1980); Patricia Bernstein, First Waco Horror: The Lynching of Jesse Washington and the Rise of the NAACP (College Station, TX: Texas A&M University Press, 2006); National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), “Thirty years of lynching in the United States, 1889-1918,” 1919; Richetta Randolph Wallace papers, 1978.137; box 3, folder 3; Brooklyn Historical Society.

4) Lucy Lippard, The Lure of the Local (New York: New Press, 1998).

To cite this page:
Deborah Mutnick, “The Appeal of the Archives: Engaging Students in More Meaningful Research,”, accessed [insert date here],


Deborah Mutnick
Professor of English and Co-Director of Learning Communities
LIU Brooklyn
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