Choosing the Right Documents
Choosing the Right Documents

Instructors should focus on document analysis (not more advanced research skills like posing questions or identifying collections) during archives visits with inexperienced students. Thus, picking the right documents makes all the difference when designing an effective learning experience.

Instructors should select documents that reinforce the learning objectives of the visit, and that are relevant to the topic of study. In order to provide students ample time and physical space to practice document analysis skills, we advocate choosing a small number of documents – sometimes as few as 1 or 2. Teachers should think carefully about the logistics of interacting with a document: its size, readability, and its condition.

Consider the following steps when selecting documents for your archives visit:

Locate Your Documents

Teachers planning to bring students to the archives should plan research time in order to select documents well in advance of an archives visit. Some instructors have extensive experience in the archives, while others have conducted little or no archival research. Reference staff at the archives should be able to brief instructors on the basics of archival research, teach them to navigate the collections, and suggest some important research leads.

Researching as a teacher is very different than researching as a scholar. As instructors peruse collections, they should keep in mind that they do not have to find all of the great documents on their chosen subject; they just have to find the 1 or 2 documents best suited to the visit’s objectives.

Often, archives staff will have suggestions on documents that have worked well – or fallen flat – during student visits. Selecting the right document provides an opportunity for collaboration between staff and instructors.

Know Your Learning Objectives

Selecting the right documents requires the instructor to articulate exactly what knowledge or skills students should acquire during the archives visit. The visit’s learning objectives should determine exactly what documents a teacher should use.

Teachers should also be aware of whether they are presenting documents which are typical of the historic era or artistic style in question, or whether they are sharing exceptional examples with students.

Use Fewer Documents

Almost without fail, all of the faculty that we’ve worked with have told us at the end of the semester, “I shouldn’t have requested so many documents.” Instructors should use far fewer documents than they think they need. Students – especially first-year students – need ample time to practice the foundational skills of document analysis.

Logistics matter in enabling students to build these skills. Think about your students’ first encounter with the document. Consider the physical size, or condition of the document, the length and legibility of the text, the vocabulary used, and the visual literacy skills of students. If using stations, especially if rotating, try to select an “even” amount of documents for each group. Make notes during archives visits so you can tweak next time.

Creating a “Manageable Overwhelm”

Many instructors want to preserve the inevitable sense of overwhelm that researchers can and should feel in the archives, but for students this must be a “manageable overwhelm.” Students will likely be overwhelmed by just 1 or 2 documents. This exercise does a great job, over the course of 3 visits, preparing students to look an entire archival folder. But the real overwhelm of archival research can come later, when they are more prepared to make sense of an entire collection.

To cite this page:
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Choosing the Right Documents,”, accessed [insert date here],


Julie Golia
Historian / Founder and Editor,
Brooklyn Historical Society
view bio + contact info >
Robin M. Katz
Archivist / Founder and Editor,
Brooklyn Historical Society
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