Special Collections and Archives blog

Archives and Instruction

Happy New Year to all.


Group of young students, probably part of the Northern Arizona Normal School’s Training School program [1922]

This past year Special Collections and Archives at Northern Arizona University has embarked on a little experiment involving class instruction and the use of primary source materials. To that end we began partnering with willing faculty to introduce their students to our manuscript and University archives collections; their respective finding aids online in Arizona Archives Online (AAO), and material we have digitized and made available via our digital archives.

The instruction sessions took several forms. Some were highly targeted reflecting focused research for papers that well matched our collecting focus (the human and natural history of the Colorado Plateau), others were built around assignments for specific regional topics, while others were more episodic and task-based, somewhat experimental, or better, experiential. We really tried to move away from simply showing students “old stuff from the archives”, to assignments that had students assess what it was they were presented with- whether that was material they had found searching AAO, or representative material selected by the instructors (often with our input) that students evaluated individually or in groups. We also began throwing the doors to our collection storage areas so that smaller students/tour groups could actually see the organization and extensive nature of our collections.

Some numbing statistical information:

In all we did 42 instruction sessions across 2015, 10 in the Spring semester and 32 in the Fall. We dealt with 24 individual faculty (or instruction/event organizers, as some of these were community or non-NAU events), and 862 students (229 Spring, 633 Fall). Of the events, 11 were for non-Northern Arizona University groups (Coconino Community College [4], Prescott College [1], Old Trails Museum [1], Soroptimists [1], Winslow Rotary[1], Flagstaff High School AP History [1], and Howard University [1]).

Academic areas and departments represented include: History [8], Environmental Studies [1], Native American Studies [1], Honors [5], English [4], Humanities [2], Communications [6] and Education [2]. The courses ran the gamut from high school level through graduate 700 level.

These sessions lasted on average an hour (the range was from 40 minutes up to 3 hours), and required at least one hour for planning, meaning the time investment on the part of Special Collections was on the order of 84-108 hours over the course of the year.

So what did we learn from all this?

First, that those courses and areas of studies that we might assume would be our primary partners (like History) are certainly important, but they are not by any means exclusive. We partnered with a wide academic array of faculty to create useful and interesting assignments around primary source material.

Second, there is a high degree of interest in primary source materials outside of the university that needs to be and should be served. Some of these groups are logical academic partnerships while others reflected interest in our current public exhibit (Fred Harvey: Branding the Southwest) or other local interests, and these sessions are frankly useful at several levels (archives promotion, and cultivating potential donors and collections as an example) aside from fulfilling some level academic or research interest.

Third, while it would be inappropriate to link archival instruction sessions to increased use as being causational at this point, our use statistics were up by 2% for the 2015 year over 2014. Is that significant given the numbers above? I don’t know that there is an easy answer to that.

Fourth- and most importantly, our instruction sessions did have significant impacts on student academic success. While almost entirely anecdotal, what we heard from faculty and students is all about what they learned about research, and about their research topics. One class was so enthused, they asked that their capstone presentations be made in Special Collections- and that turned into a remarkable afternoon. Certainly much of what students told us fell into that “I didn’t know this material existed” category, but others also reported being launched into new research and interest areas which may impact their academic careers at NAU because of their encounters with primary sources. Similarly, faculty are finding ways to support their classes using primary source materials in ways we normally (as archivists) would not think of that deals more with exposure to unique materials than finding specific application of their information. These new partnerships and SCA’s supporting role in class instruction are enhancing both the student experience, but also our own reference and retrieval skills.

Lastly, this has been fun. Lots of fun. Special Collections has been front and center for a number of classes, and that really has impacted our desk traffic and interactions with students. We answered their enthusiastic questions; we placed unique material into peoples’ hands and we got to talk about archival, research and preservation issues and theory. This has been as good for us as for the students and their faculty.

It may not seem like much, but what we have done is moved deliberately from being a passive service unit towards being an active one. We can’t say where this leads or whether it is sustainable (I got four instruction requests for the Spring 2016 semester while composing this), but it has invigorated Special Collections and our users. Active IS better.

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