Teaching Special Collections with TeachArchives.org

On Thursday, I had the pleasure of welcoming one of Dr. Hilary Green’s class into the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection. While I have worked with Dr. Green in the past for a class on African American History, this one is titled “Civil War Still Lives!: Race, Memory, and Politics of Reunion.” The course focuses on Civil War memory and specifically asks students to examine the legacy of the Civil War and Reconstruction at The University of Alabama.

I was particularly excited to work with Dr. Green’s class for two reasons. The first is that the A.S. Williams III Americana Collection is rich in sources regarding the Civil War and its immediate aftermath. We have an extensive collection of regimental histories, biographies and memoirs, published speeches, and photographs from the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the turn of the twentieth century. These sources provide valuable insight into which aspects of the Civil War would be remembered and promoted and which would be silenced in the pursuit of national reunification. Given our collection’s concentration on the Civil War, I was happy to expose Dr. Green’s class to this material and explain its historical importance.

Secondly, the instruction session allowed me to implement some of the advice I had learned from attending the American Historical Association conference in January. I attended a panel where Julie Golia, the Director of Public History at the Brooklyn Historical Society, explained the project that gave rise to TeachArchives.org. The Brooklyn Historical Society received a three-year grant in 2011 that allowed them to bring in 1,110 students from Long Island University Brooklyn, New York City College of Technology, and Saint Francis College and teach them to analyze original documents. The BHS sought to improve understanding of special collections research and effectively demystify the process of conducting primary source research. TeachArchives.org is the culmination of this project and provides invaluable guidance for teaching methods and instruction.

After attending the session, I decided that I would bring some of the strategies discussed on TeachArchives.org into my own instruction and outreach. For Dr. Green’s class, I expanded my explanation of the rules and regulations of a special collections library, explained the challenges that different materials like newspapers and photographs present, and provided a thorough list of examples of what can be used within the Williams Collection and UA’s Division of Special Collections as a whole. Instead of simply lecturing, I sat with the students and let the conversation flow to questions and concerns that they had. Overall, the session was much more relaxed than in previous classes and it seemed as though the students felt more prepared for their research. In the future I’ll continue to pull from TeachArchives.org as we expand our outreach and encourage students to visit and conduct research within our collections.

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