Making Logistical Decisions
Making Logistical Decisions

Well thought-out logistics make an enormous impact on successful teaching in the archives. In fact, small details often determine the success or failure of a visit.

Going to the archives and working with primary sources pushes students to leave their comfort zone. They are in a place they have never been before, practicing unfamiliar skills. To help students develop these skills and to optimize student engagement, instructors should make this new experience as seamless as possible for their class.

Visiting the archives with students also pushes instructors outside of their comfort zones. Thinking carefully about logistics will create a better experience for teachers as well.

To help plan an archives visit, we have put together a list of important logistical questions that should be answered as instructors design their in-archives exercise.

How will my students get to the archives?

Instructors should think carefully about how students will get to the archives for the visit, even if the institution is only a few blocks away.

Generally, there are two options: ask your students to meet there at the designated time; or gather on campus and travel to the archives together. We have found more success with the latter. Traveling over together creates a sense of camaraderie among students, allows the professor to incorporate place-based learning en route, and ensures that all students show up at the institution at the same time.

We recommend not allowing latecomers – not only because it can be a challenge in secure buildings, but because students who miss introductions are ill-prepared and distracts others.

When the archives is far from campus, instructors need to determine:

  • whether there is reliable campus or public transportation to the institution
  • whether and how students will be penalized if they do not show up
  • whether an alternate time outside of the class period needs to be set aside for the visit (for example, if the class period is too short to allow for travel time and adequate research time at the archives)

When will my students receive an orientation to the archives?

Likely your students will know little or nothing about an archives or a historical society before they visit. Teachers should plan for students to take part in at least 15 minutes of orientation during their first visit. Students need to be taught care and handling procedures and to learn what an archives is and how it differs from other libraries.

An archives staff member usually leads this introduction, but faculty and staff can collaborate to tailor this introduction to the specific learning objectives of each visit.

Consider asking the archives staff member to conduct a pre-visit: to come to your classroom and orient students prior to the initial visit. Pre-visits are especially useful when the planned archives visit will be an hour and a half or less.

Will my students conduct research individually or in a small group?

Some in-archives activities require students to work individually, like this professor’s exercise in which each students focuses on a single document. That said, 5 semesters of experience has proven that small group work is an ideal way to structure a student’s first visits to the archives. Students benefit from each others’ ideas, work collaboratively, and build class camaraderie.

When designing your visit, consider how many students can effectively read and analyze a chosen document at once. 5 students, for example, might not be able to look at one small handwritten document at once; 3 students likely can. To determine the appropriate number of students per document or station, think carefully about how you want students to interact with the document. Will they read the document? Transcribe it? Take photographs of the document? Fill out a handout of directed questions? Will they sit or stand?

Instructors should also decide whether students will be required to hand in their work as a group, or to complete an in-archives assignment individually.

How can the documents be arranged to best support student learning?

Once an instructor has selected a small number of documents for students to study, he or she should work with archives staff to determine the best set up in the library or reading room. They should also discuss how students will enter the space, where they will leave bags and coats, and how they will physically interact with the documents.

For example, if collections are oversized (for example, large maps), the room will need big enough tables to support all the documents. Facilitators might have to instruct students to stand, not sit, while looking at the document. Other times, students should feel free to move their chairs to gather around a document. Facilitators may also consider providing clipboards to students.

Or, consider a small, handwritten diary. Archives staff may need to provide book cradles and worms and teach students how to use them. If the handwriting is small, students may also need a magnifying class. If tools like light tables are required, be aware of where these will be in relation to other documents. Instructors and staff should also make sure there is adequate natural or lamp light for students to be able to read and decipher handwriting.

No detail is too small to work out ahead of time. For example, one class visit with an oversized atlas might have a key in the front with essential information. An instructor might provide a digital camera or ask students to use their camera phones to take a picture of that key, and refer to the digital image when analyzing maps on subsequent pages.

Will my students look at all or some of the documents I select?

After instructors select documents for an in-archives exercise, they must determine whether students can or should look at all of the documents, or just a sampling of them. For example, in an exercise on the Civil War draft, the instructor created 4 stations of documents. Small groups of students were assigned to each station. Classes with more time might rotate between stations in order to see all the documents.

When determining whether your students will remain at one station or rotate among some or all of them, instructors should always overestimate – significantly – how much time students need to read and analyze a document. Students can spend upwards of one hour reading and analyzing just one document. Providing students with that time is essential. If rotating, it can also take students longer to move between stations than expected.

But even if a class period is many hours long, teachers should still think about how much information students can comfortably ingest in one sitting. Even if students have enough time to look at many difficult documents, it might be too much.

Where and how should my students be situated throughout the visit?

Think carefully about where you want students to sit during all parts of the archives visit. During the orientation, choose a space in the reading room where the whole class will be able to hear and pay attention to the staff member giving that introduction.

While working with documents, make sure that students have enough space to work. This means room for the documents, the students, and their notebooks and cameras. Ensure that groups are far enough away from each other to avoid distractions. Alternately, if you want to encourage groups to interact, sit them near each other.

Finally, when reconvening for the visit wrap-up, it is essential to gather students in such a a way that promotes conversation. They should be able to hear and see each other, which may require moving, rearranging chairs, or standing up.

Who will facilitate the visit, and how?

In our experience, teachers and archives staff bring different and complimentary skills and knowledge to class visits, making them ideal co-facilitators. Having 2 or 3 experts in the room to help students is always preferable to 1, especially with a larger class.

Faculty and archives staff should determine ahead of time how they will facilitate the room after general introductions. One option is to assign each facilitator to a specific station. This works well if there are three stations and three facilitators;if students are rotating among stations, they will have the opportunity to interact with each facilitator.

When there are more stations than facilitators, another option is to determine “zones” for each facilitator to cover. Avoid “free for all” facilitation, in which instructors and staff float randomly around the room, popping in to each group. In these situations, we have found that different facilitators often unknowingly ask the same questions or point out the same things, creating a repetitive (and slightly annoying) experience for students.

Finally, faculty and staff should clarify which roles each facilitator will fulfill. A teacher may want to allot five minutes for a lecture refreshing students about important contextual knowledge, or even for other class business. They may want archives staff to lecture on an area of expertise or to demonstrate something (like how moveable type works). Each facilitator should articulate their strengths and interests beforehand, and incorporate these tasks into the agenda of each visit.

No matter how simple the plan, teachers and archives staff must collaborate to hammer out important logistical details. Disregarding logistics can lead to a disorganized, confusing student experience. Take careful notes during and after the visit to make improvements in scheduling, layout, or space next time. Thinking carefully about logistics creates an organized, transparent experience that may well become a defining moment in a student’s academic career.

To cite this page:
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Making Logistical Decisions,”, 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
view bio + contact info >