Providing Context
Providing Context

Seasoned researchers rarely show up at an archives without doing essential background reading in appropriate secondary sources. And during and after their time in the archives, they continue to synthesize their research findings with outside sources.

Likewise, teachers should not bring their students to observe and analyze primary sources without providing them with the appropriate context ahead of time. They should also consider integrating further contextual materials during and after the visit to the archives – this has the added benefit of extending the lessons of the archival experience.

How Much Context?

When designing an in-archives activity, instructors should determine how much background knowledge students will need to get the most out of their primary sources. For some, that contextual information might be provided through already-planned class lectures or course readings. For projects whose topics depart from the course curriculum, more specialized information may need to be provided.

Some teachers may want to limit the amount of information they provide to students to foster a student’s “naïve encounter” with a document. But rarely have we seen a successful archives visit in which a student receives no context at all. Some teachers may refrain from providing advanced information about specifics – for example, biographical information about a Civil War soldier mentioned in a document – and encourage students to conduct follow up research to identify that person. But they should provide more broad background information.

Overall, there is no “right” amount of context to provide to students before they sit down with primary source documents. Instructors must tailor the background knowledge they provide to the objectives of their course and archives visit. But we can say that being conscientious, planning ahead, and revisiting that plan are the ingredients for success.

When To Provide It?

Teachers should always provide basic foundational information to students before their interaction with original documents – especially when working with students with little research experience. Instructors must remember that what might seem like basic or common knowledge to them – for example, broad knowledge of major dates in American history – may not be known to students. This is particularly true when teaching students who are not majoring in the discipline of the course.

It is possible to allow students to look up names, dates, or places during the archives visit by providing references sources alongside primary source documents. An activity on New York’s 1799 gradual manumission law, for example, requires students to read the text of a state law while examining original documents in the archives.

Successfully designed projects – like this research project on the history of Coney Island – often provide basic background information before the first archives visit, and then require students to conduct follow up research in secondary sources before returning to the archives. This model shows students that archives and primary source documents often raise more questions than answers, and that they are often “unlocked” through additional secondary source research.

Context provided by class lectures and discussions after the archives visit can reinforce the themes and objectives of the archives visit, and can push students to use the evidence they gathered in the archives to make interpretations and arguments. This is especially useful if later assignments (such as research papers or something less traditional) require students to draw on their archival research.

What Kind of Context?

What context a teacher provides depends on the course discipline and the objectives for the archives visit.

Most instructors will want to provide historical background on the subject of study. For example, for this exercise on civil rights in the north, the professor provides basic historical information on the civil rights movement through in-class lectures and assigned readings.

Other students might need to acquire technical information before they arrive at the archives. Photography students may need to learn about changing technologies or formats; an architecture class might learn about drafting techniques or construction methods.

Lectures by instructors and assigned readings are common and effective methods of providing context. Some professors – especially those with longer class periods – have found it helpful to give mini-lectures during the archives visit. Also useful are the historical or biographical information found in collection finding aids; carefully-evaluated online articles; or other primary sources.

In some cases, students may need to learn more about the collection in which they are researching. To provide this, instructors may provide the biographical/historical note, scope and contents note, or provenance information found in a collection’s finding aid (with students new to archives, we suggest excerpting finding aids, but providing a link back to the full guide). Archives staff may need to to give a brief lecture explaining the history of a collection, how it was acquired by the archives, or how it is organized.

To introduce students to the overall experience of going to an archives, we recommend essays like Jennifer Egan’s “Reading Lucy.”1 It is a beautiful reflection on one person’s experience in our reading room, but it should spark excitement in students preparing to visit any archives.

1) Jennifer Egan, “Reading Lucy,” in Brooklyn Was Mine, eds. Chris Knutsen and Valerie Steiker, 21-32. New York: Riverhead, 2008.

To cite this page:
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “Providing Context,”, 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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