Conducting research in the archives can be a great complement to place-based learning – especially when the collections reference or contextualize the community in which students live, work, or study.
By learning how to analyze original documents, students acquire skills that are applicable outside of the archives, too. Document analysis pushes students to carefully examine, read, and observe. In the archives, they might notice the binding on a book, a wax seal on a colonial legal document, a watermark on stationery. On the street, they may notice architectural styles, the scale of a neighborhood, population density, the proximity of parks, the presence of public statuary, and many other details that can fuel analysis. Students can see the parallels between the skills they learn in the archives and a critical analysis of the built environment.
The faculty with whom we worked all taught at colleges within walking distance of our institution. They took advantage of this proximity, working with archives staff to plan walking tours and crafting in-archives exercises that encouraged students to look at the neighborhoods in and around their colleges in new ways.
When students arrive at our building, we often lead a short, critical reading of our 19th-century building, showing students that structures and interiors are also primary sources.
Often place-based projects can help students understand the changing uses of neighborhoods over time. For example, this exercise uses maps and entertainment guides to reveal that the area near their campus was once a thriving theater district – something they would not know as passersby today. When paired with a walking tour, students learn both local and national lessons. They realize how different Brooklyn’s landscape and residents were a century earlier, and they learn about vaudeville’s role in American popular culture at the turn of the century.
Instructors can also draw connections between the archives and still-thriving community institutions. In this exercise, a professor of religion has her students read letters pertaining to local Protestant congregations to better understand the impact of the Civil War on ordinary Brooklynites. Students are able to visit these churches which stand just a few blocks from their college.
Bringing students out into the neighborhood has an added logistical benefit: it allows instructors to get their students to the archives in an organized and purposeful way. As one professor has observed, conducting a mini walking tour en route to the archives instills in the class a unifying sense of camaraderie and adventure. In this exercise, an English professor uses the walking tour to structure a major course assignment. After they attend a walking tour given by an archives staff member, students research various locations, record themselves giving “stops,” and embed the video in a Google map.
To incorporate place-based learning into your archives experience, find out whether the archives you are working with has collections related to local places or events. If you are particularly committed to incorporating a specific place into your exercise, choose a repository whose collections can best support your interests and needs.
Pairing archival materials with neighborhoods and places can transform the way a student understands his or her environment. It also shows students that, in addition to being relevant to many aspects of their lives, the archives can be fun!
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Incorporating Place-Based Learning in an Archives Experience,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/place-based-learning/.