Issue Fourteen

Water-color image of guinea pig conducting archival research.
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Introduction: Teaching & Research with Archives

From projects like the SNCC Digital Gateway to Colored Conventions, digital technologies are prompting renewed attention to archival research and teaching practices and creating new opportunities for engaging primary sources. At the same time, digital technologies are raising ethical questions about how archives are created, organized, shared, accessed, and preserved. Increased access has coincided with what Wendy Hayden calls “The Archival Turn’s Pedagogical Turn,” as instructors explore how archival encounters can catalyze student-centered, experiential, collaborative, and project-based learning experiences. With this issue, we sought to address several questions: How do scholars locate authoritative information and guarantee continued access in the current media landscape? How do we teach undergraduate students to perform archival research, evaluate digital sources, and even compose and curate their own archives?

As a graduate student researching letter writing, special issue editor Jojo Karlin worked on a digital edition of her grandparents’ wartime overseas correspondence. From this experience, she saw the necessity for contemporary scholars to receive training in efficient and ethical digital asset management, including how to organize digital files and metadata. She realized that conversations about digital archives were occurring among librarians (who often see firsthand the transitions between technologies and the simultaneous organization of analog and digital materials) and among educators who teach with archives and want to leverage new technologies to help students create their own. She wondered how we could bring these conversations together.

As a newly-minted PhD, Danica Savonick recognized that her research on feminist literature and pedagogy was transformed by long hours spent in archives with the syllabi, lesson plans, and assignments of activist educators from previous generations. When performing research on pedagogical archives, what we often encounter is labor: the letters to administrators, budgets, and grant requests (interspersed with grocery lists) that remind us how much unseen work goes into producing the scene of teaching and learning. As she sought to develop similarly transformative archival assignments for her students, she realized how difficult it is to set the stage for a meaningful encounter with primary source documents. She wanted to work on this special issue to learn more about how other teacher-scholars are facilitating archival encounters in their classrooms.

As a former history student, Stephen Klein felt a guilty pleasure for archives even before he decided to become a librarian. Some of his most epiphanic moments of inquiry occurred when combing through archives and discovering a unique primary source that either supported his suspicions or fundamentally altered existing views. Despite maintaining some generalized best practices that he uses in his everyday work-life as a librarian, Stephen is interested in how archiving processes are often specific to the actual, unique objects being archived.

As co-editors we were delighted (and somewhat shocked) to receive an unprecedented number of submissions for this special issue, roughly 3 to 4 times more than an average JITP issue. Given the abundance of submissions, we added a section called “Views from the Field” to highlight short, praxis-based examples of archival research and teaching in action.

Several of the articles in this issue address how digital technologies are changing how we define, curate, and access archives. In “Crowdsourcing Traumatic History: Understanding the Historial Archive” Kirsti Girdharry analyzes Our Marathon: The Boston Bombing Digital Archive to consider what it means to collaborate with the public in crowdsourcing a digital archive. Girdharry analyzes how the digital impacts our understanding of archives, especially those that aim both to historicize and memorialize recent tragedies. In “Realizing the Past: Charting a Course for Sustainable Instruction and Engagement with Archival Materials Using Augmented and Virtual Reality Technologies” Amanda G. Pellerin, Ximin Mi, and Alison Valk describe the opportunities and limitations that augmented and virtual reality provide for accessing archival objects. While these technologies may help democratize access to archival materials, the authors also consider what might get lost in digitizing a rich three-dimensional object. (And for those interested in similar projects, keep an eye out for the CFP for an upcoming special themed issue of JITP on virtual reality edited by Amanda Licastro and Angel David Nieves.)

The majority of articles in this special issue focus on how “teaching and research with archives,” centers the work of collaboration. As scholars have noted, digital projects require many hands on deck—what Cathy N. Davidson calls “collaboration by difference”—prompting the creation of new academic procedures and protocols like “Guidelines for Evaluating Work in Digital Humanities and Digital Media.” Similarly, teaching with archives requires carefully scaffolded collaborations among faculty, staff, librarians, archivists, and instructional technologists that dispel the mythical notion of the genius scholar toiling away in isolation.

Several of the articles take up collaboration by demonstrating how work across institutions can be mutually beneficial. In “The Space Between Researcher, Object, Institution: Building Collaborative Knowledge with Primary Sources,” Mary Catherine Kinniburgh advocates for graduate-level archival training to support students using primary source research for their dissertations and theses. Kinniburgh discusses the Collaborative Seminar she organized in conjunction with the CUNY Graduate Center Library, the New York Public Library, and others, to generate a community of primary source researchers. While Kinniburgh focuses primarily on the humanities, authors Wendy Wasman, Thomas R. Beatman, Shanon Donnelly, Kathryn M. Flinn, Jeremy Spencer, and Ryan J. Trimbath show how institutional collaborations around archival projects can flourish in the natural sciences as well. In “Branching Out: Using Historical Records to Connect with the Environment,” Wasman et al. analyze the digitized archives of Cleveland naturalist A.B. Williams to show how inter-institutional collaboration can mobilize resources for educational use, from primary school exercises to graduate research.

Another cluster of articles describes collaboration in the context of joint efforts among faculty, students, and archivists to co-create digital archives. In “Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections,” Will Fenton, Kate Johnson, and Kelly Schmidt describe a collaboration between faculty and students to produce a digital archive as a way of introducing students to concepts of knowledge production and archival construction. Drawing on the Collaborators’ Bill of Rights, they describe an assignment that involved students in knowledge production by contributing to the Digital Paxton project. In “Teaching Colonial Translations Through Archives: From Ink and Quill to XML (Or Not),” Allison Bigelow describes an assignment in which students helped to translate and edit colonial documents from the Early Americas Digital Archive. Through the assignment, “students learn about colonial archives by approaching them as public-facing, meaning-making sites of translation, interpretation, and textual editing, and by remediating print materials from the archives into annotated translations.”

Several articles consider these student-centered archival practices in the context of writing classrooms. In “From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy for the 21st Century Writing Classroom,” Elizabeth Davis, Nancee Reeves, and Teresa Saxton analyze how archival research can help students better understand composition as a process of remixing, recontextualizing, collaborating, and curating. Through carefully scaffolded assignments, their students developed an “archives-based composition process” that improved their understanding of the social nature of writing and the material properties of texts, both of which are essential components of twenty-first-century literacies. In “‘Diving Into the Wreck’: (Re)Creating the Archive in the First-Year Writing Classroom” Maxine Krenzel and Daisy Atterbury describe a semester-long peer writing exchange across institutions based on poet Adrienne Rich’s archival teaching materials. With digital file sharing, they dislocate the classroom across campuses and ask, “How can the work that students leave behind inspire and enact its own unique pedagogy?”

Many of these articles consider how archival materials—zines, campus newsletters, correspondence—can help students address important questions about who gets to write history, whose stories are included, and whose are left out. In “Narrating Memory through Rhetorical Reflections: CUNY Students and Their Archives,” Wendy Hayden, María Hernández-Ojeda, and Iris Finkel describe a series of assignments in which undergraduates performed research in physical, institutional archives and shared their findings on digital platforms. In doing so, students became “active agents of generational transmission” who learned about history through the process of contributing to institutional memories. In “Collaboration Adventures with Primary Sources: Exploring Creative and Digital Outputs,” Jennifer Needham and Jeanann Croft Haas analyze the collaborative efforts among University of Pittsburgh librarians and faculty to incorporate the institution’s archival collections into the classroom. Through a series of case studies, Needham and Haas show how archival pedagogy can support an environment of student innovation through the production of what they call “creative outputs,” including websites, blog posts, zines, data sets, and visualizations.

Archives have long been central to feminist, antiracist, and justice-oriented research that recovers the historical contributions of women, people of color, and LGBTQ people. Several articles in this special issue extend this work to the undergraduate classroom. In “Engaging Women’s History through Collaborative Archival Wikipedia Projects,” Ariella Rotramel, Rebecca Parmer, and Rose Oliveira show how archivists, students, and faculty can facilitate knowledge production guided by feminist theory. Together they worked to leverage Wikipedia’s global reach “while struggling with editorial criteria that value objectivity and notoriety.” In “Possibly Impossible; Or, Teaching Undergraduates to Confront Digital and Archival Research Methodologies, Social Media Networking, and Potential Failure,” Rebekah Fitzsimmons and Suzan Alteri analyze an assignment that involved students in recovering the biographies of under-represented women science writers of the 19th century. The authors emphasize the potential and possible failure inherent in original research and found that “[s]tudents felt successful regardless of how much information they located; even [those] with no results reported feeling they had learned a significant amount from the project.” Recovery is also central to the feminist and antiracist projects described in a View by Ken Grossi, Alexia Hudson-Ward, Carol Lasser, Sarah Minion, and Natalia Shevin titled “How a Digital Collaboration at Oberlin College Between Archivists, Faculty, Students and Librarians Found its Muse in Mary Church Terrell, Nineteenth-Century Feminist and Civil Rights Icon.” In this View, the authors describe how faculty, students, and an archivist collaborated to help students co-author digital mini-editions for the Digitizing American Feminisms project.

Considered together, these articles demonstrate that historical inquiry is thriving. Students nationwide are learning how to access primary source documents and to consider the mechanisms of power that underscore how archives are constructed and accessed. We hope these articles will inspire researchers and educators to try something new or different, and share what they learn from the experience. And we hope you enjoy reading these articles as much as we enjoyed collaborating across time, space, and institutions to edit them.

About the Issue Editors

Danica Savonick is Assistant Professor of English at SUNY Cortland. She holds a PhD in English and a Certificate in American Studies from the CUNY Graduate Center. Danica blogs regularly about pedagogy and social justice and her work has appeared in American Literature, Digital Humanities Quarterly, Modern Fiction Studies, and Hybrid Pedagogy. Her current manuscript, Insurgent Knowledge, analyzes the activist pedagogies of Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Adrienne Rich, and Toni Cade Bambara. Danica serves on the Steering Committee for HASTAC.org and is lead author of “Gender Bias in Academe.”

Jojo Karlin, a PhD candidate in English at the Graduate Center, City University of New York, is dedicated to ideas about books, letters, and communication. As the Manifold Scholarship fellow, she is helping to develop Open Education Resources on the Mellon-funded, open source, hybrid publishing platform. As outreach coordinator for the NEH-funded DH Box, she co-led a course in Web APIs with Python at the Digital Humanities Summer Institute. An actress and an artist, she continually seeks creative ways of engaging the academy and the public, whether through drawing, performance, or posted letter.

Stephen I. Klein, the Digital Services Librarian at the Mina Rees CUNY Graduate School Library, spends much of his work-life behind the scenes insuring that the pulse of the GC’s library systems continue to work seamlessly for library users. He also spends time ‘freaking-out’ about the crisis of how our cultural heritage is quickly disappearing, because of the acceleration of modern ephemera with the advent of the web as one of the central forums for popular conversation and academic scholarship.

Watercolor showing bookstack with notes scattered nearby. A sign reads "pencils only."
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Table of Contents: Issue Fourteen

Introduction
Danica Savonick, Jojo Karlin, and Stephen Klein

Possibly Impossible; Or, Teaching Undergraduates to Confront Digital and Archival Research Methodologies, Social Media Networking, and Potential Failure 
Rebekah Fitzsimmons and Suzan Alteri

From Page to Screen and Back Again: Archives-Centered Pedagogy in the 21st Century Writing Classroom
Elizabeth Davis, Nancee Reeves, and Teresa Saxton

Crowdsourcing Traumatic History: Understanding the Historial Archive
Kristi Girdharry

Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections
Will Fenton, Kate Johnson, and Kelly Schmidt

The Space Between Researcher, Object, Institution: Building Collaborative Knowledge with Primary Sources
Mary Catherine Kinniburgh

Narrating Memory through Rhetorical Reflections: CUNY Students and Their Archives
Wendy Hayden, María Hernández-Ojeda, and Iris Finkel

Engaging Women’s History through Collaborative Archival Wikipedia Projects  

Ariella Rotramel, Rebecca Parmer, and Rose Oliveira

Collaboration Adventures with Primary Sources: Exploring Creative and Digital Outputs
Jennifer Needham and Jeanann Croft Haas

Realizing the Past: Charting a Course for Sustainable Instruction and Engagement with Archival Materials Using Augmented and Virtual Reality Technologies
Amanda G. Pellerin, Ximin Mi, and Alison Valk

Branching Out: Using Historical Records to Connect with the Environment
Wendy Wasman, Thomas Beatman, Shanon Donnelly, Kathryn Flinn, Jeremy Spencer, and Ryan Trimbath

Views from the Field

Teaching Colonial Translations Through Archives: From Ink and Quill to XML (Or Not)
Allison Margaret Bigelow

Diving into the Wreck: (Re)Creating the Archive in the First Year Writing Classroom 
Maxine Krenzel and Daisy Atterbury

Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom
Mackenzie Brooks

How a Digital Collaboration at Oberlin College Between Archivists, Faculty, Students and Librarians Found Its Muse in Mary Church Terrell, Nineteenth-Century Feminist and Civil Rights Icon
Ken Grossi, Alexia Hudson-Ward, Carol Lasser, Sarah Minion, and Natalia Shevin

Issue Fourteen Masthead

Issue Editors
Danica Savonick
Jojo Karlin
Stephen Klein

Managing Editor
Patrick DeDauw

Copyeditors
Anne Donlon
Patrick DeDauw
Jojo Karlin
Benjamin Miller
Nicole Zeftel

Style and Structure Editor
Dominique Zino

Staging Editors
Teresa Ober
Lisa Brundage
Anne Donlon
Krystyna Michael
Benjamin Miller
Danica Savonick
sava saheli singh
Inés Vañó García
Luke Waltzer

A scan and transcription of a letter from Christopher Town.
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Digital Paxton: Collaborative Construction with Eighteenth-Century Manuscript Collections

Abstract

Digital Paxton is a digital collection, scholarly edition, and, most crucially for this issue, a burgeoning teaching platform devoted to the archives of Pennsylvania’s first major pamphlet war. In this co-authored piece, Will Fenton will introduce the massacre that sparked that debate, the limitations of the existing approach, and the affordances of his digital humanities project. Following Fenton’s comments on collaboration and acknowledgement, Kate Johnson and Kelly Schmidt will provide a case study in digital humanities pedagogy, demonstrating how they used a class transcription assignment as an opportunity to improve and expand the educational offerings of Digital Paxton. Through their analyses, Fenton, Johnson, and Schmidt will show how their collaboration demonstrates the value of digital projects and transcription assignments for students’ critical thinking and media literacy.

The Paxton Massacre

In December 1763, following years of backcountry warfare, a mob of settlers in the Paxton Township—just outside what is today Harrisburg—murdered twenty unarmed Conestoga Indians along the Pennsylvania frontier. Soon after, hundreds of these “Paxton Boys” marched on Philadelphia to menace a group of Moravian Indians who had, in response to the violence, been placed under government protection. Although the confrontation was diffused through the diplomacy of Benjamin Franklin, the incident ventilated long-festering religious and ethnic grievances, pitting the colony’s German and Scots-Irish Presbyterian frontiersmen against Philadelphia’s English Quakers and their Susquehannock trading partners.

Supporters and critics of the Paxton Boys spent the next year battling in print: the resulting public debate constituted one-fifth of the Pennsylvania’s printed material in 1764 (Olson 1999, 31). Pamphlets, which were inexpensive and quick to produce, were the medium of choice—hence the debate is often called the Paxton pamphlet war. But many other printed and unprinted materials circulated simultaneously, including broadsides, political cartoons, letters, diaries, and treaty minutes. Although this debate was ostensibly about the conduct of the Paxton vigilantes, it quickly migrated to other issues facing colonial Pennsylvania, including suspicions of native others, anxieties about porous borders, a yawning divide between urban and rural populations, and the proliferation of what we might today call “fake news.”

While most researchers explore the pamphlet war through John Raine Dunbar’s scholarly edition, The Paxton Papers (1957), much of the debate cannot be found in Dunbar’s edition.[1] There are dozens of alternate editions, answers, and responses to the pamphlets identified by Dunbar, and, if one examines the originals, one uncovers engravings, artworks, and other forms of materiality that could not be examined through textual transcriptions alone. Perhaps most importantly, the current approach to the Paxton debate, which prioritizes printed materials—namely pamphlets, broadsides, and political cartoons— inadvertently reinforces colonial and cosmopolitan biases. That is, much of the Paxton debate happened outside Philadelphia printers. If researchers are to reckon with the massacre’s geographic, ethnic, and class complexities, they ought to consider manuscript collections that give voice to backcountry settlers and the indigenous peoples at the center of this tragic episode.

Digital Paxton

Digital Paxton seeks to expand awareness of and access to such heterogeneous records. The project began as a digital collection of pamphlets available through the Library Company of Philadelphia and Historical Society of Pennsylvania. As partners in the project, those institutions are responsible for digitizing at their own expense more than half of the records available in Digital Paxton. Subsequent partnerships have brought scans of contemporaneous Pennsylvania Gazette issues at the American Antiquarian Society; Friendly Association correspondence from the Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; letters from the John Elder and Timothy Horsfield Papers at the American Philosophical Society; and congregational diaries from the Moravian Archives of Bethlehem. Each expansion has underscored that the 1764 pamphlet war included much more than pamphlets.[2]

As important as the diversity of materials is the structure of the collection. The design of online publishing platform Scalar encourages researchers to draw connections between and across collections. Specifically, Scalar’s flat ontology enables all objects (images, transcriptions, sequences of images) to occupy the same hierarchy: no object is more of a subject than another object. In practical terms, this means that researchers encounter Governor Penn’s letters in the same pathway as they do letters between Quaker leaders and native partners, accounts of diplomatic conferences, and the writings of Wyalusing leaders. At a technical level, then, the platform supports the philosophical goals articulated by the editors of the Yale Indian Papers Project: the digital collection as a common pot, a “shared history, a kind of communal liminal space, neither solely Euro-American nor completely Native” (Grant-Costa, Glaza, and Sletcher 2012, 2). This is the allure of the digital edition: when thoughtfully structured, digital editions better accommodate a constellation of material forms, voices, and perspectives than traditional print editions.

Although Digital Paxton is foremost a digital collection, the project includes a scholarly apparatus similar to Dunbar’s Paxton Papers. However, whereas Dunbar’s introduction is singular and possesses the patina of definitiveness, this project is multi-authored, interdisciplinary, and less didactic. Practically speaking, each of the project’s twelve historical overviews, lesson plans, and conceptual keyword essays serve as freestanding entry points to the digital collection. That is, if a history student were interested in Conestoga Indiantown, she might choose to read Darvin Martin’s essay, “A History of Conestoga Indiantown,” use its links to explore the digital collection, and perform additional research using the various linked resources listed below further reading. Or, if a literature student wanted to think more carefully about what “elites” meant in the eighteenth-century, she might begin with Scott Paul Gordon’s essay, “Elites.”

Students may use the project’s introduction or interpretative pathways to traverse the project; however, rather than promoting a singular, definitive approach to the massacre and pamphlet war, Digital Paxton embraces what Adele Perry (2005) and others have called polyvocality. By layering materials and contexts, each is made less definitive, more partial, contingent, and subject to scrutiny. This approach guards against rote thinking: the Paxton massacre is a story of genocidal violence and indigenous dispossession, but it is also a story of identity politics, self-governance, resistance, and active peace-making.

As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie argued in a famous TED talk, narrative multiplicity acknowledges the complexity and dignity of human experience. “Stories matter. Many stories matter. Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity,” explained Adichie. “[W]hen we reject the single story, when we realize that there is never a single story about any place, we regain a kind of paradise” (Adichie 2009). While regaining paradise is well beyond the scope of this project, grappling with the complexities, erasures, and ambiguities of historical memory falls within its purview, thanks to the generous contributions of scholarly and archival collaborators.

Collaboration and Acknowledgement

Given that Digital Paxton is very much a bootstrap operation—cobbled together without any significant external funding—recognition of labor is the least that can be offered collaborators. To this point, the first two points of the “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights” have informed the project’s approach to collaboration and acknowledgement:

1) All kinds of work on a project are equally deserving of credit (though the amount of work and expression of credit may differ). And all collaborators should be empowered to take credit for their work.

2a) Descriptive Papers & Project reports: Anyone who collaborated on the project should be listed as author in a fair ordering based on emerging community conventions.

2b) Websites: There should be a prominent ‘credits’ link on the main page with primary investigators (PIs) or project leads listed first. This should include current staff as well as past staff with their dates of employment (Clement, Croxall, et al. 2011).

Digital Paxton is the fruition—however nascent—of contributions from dozens of archivists, curators, scholars, and technologists, whose labor is subsidized by archives, cultural institutions, research libraries, and universities. Although this project was sparked by personal research interests, little would be available today without the resources, labor, and expertise of those individuals and institutions. Acknowledgement, on the project’s Credits page and in the publications and talks, is one form of (admittedly paltry) recompense.

Collaborators take many forms, and there is perhaps no cohort more vital to this project’s future—and that of the humanities more broadly—than that of student-collaborators. This project embraces Mark Sample’s notion of “collaborative construction,” through which students produce new knowledge in concert with one another, their professor, and the project, broadly conceived. “A key point of collaborative construction is that the students are not merely making something for themselves or their professor,” explains Sample. “They are making it for each other, and in the best scenarios, for the outside world” (Sample 2011).

The second half of this article seeks to put this philosophy into practice using a case study. In the spring 2017, two faculty members, Benjamin Bankhurst (Shepherd University) and Kyle Roberts (Loyola University Chicago), who were co-teaching an undergraduate history course, “Digitizing the American Revolution,” sought to introduce students to digital humanities tools and methods. They opted to create an assignment through which students would learn to transcribe eighteenth-century letters using scanned manuscript materials from Digital Paxton. Each student was responsible for transcribing a page of manuscript. After Bankhurst or Roberts vetted students’ work, transcriptions were loaded into Digital Paxton, with a credit to each student-transcriber.[3]

The project was successful on several accounts. First, it expanded the number of transcribed (and searchable) resources in Digital Paxton. Second, it required teaching materials that can be repurposed in future transcription assignments. And third, it attracted a new community of researchers to the site. This interest is certainly measurable in the students who participated in the assignment, many of whom now regularly share Digital Paxton updates on social media platforms. Perhaps most importantly, Roberts’s graduate students—Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt—took ownership of the project in ways that made it both more effective and more scalable. Using their experience within the classroom and reviews of transcription pedagogy best practices, they offered recommendations on how to modify the Digital Paxton site to facilitate easier transcription, created documents guiding students through some of the hurdles in the transcription process, and offered feedback on improving the exercise as a classroom assignment. Johnson and Schmidt will now describe their experience with the transcription project, and the challenges and opportunities it provided.

A Case Study in Digital Pedagogy

As members of Roberts’s class, we were asked to transcribe a page from Digital Paxton’s digital collection. We enjoyed the process of learning how to identify and transcribe unfamiliar eighteenth-century characters consistently, as well as the sense that we were contributing to a larger project of significant historical value to scholars and the general public. However, along with our undergraduate classmates, we encountered challenges as we struggled to interpret the manuscripts. We felt that we could help expand the project by creating a guide for people planning to transcribe individually or in a crowdsourced or classroom setting.

The assignment began with an introduction to Digital Paxton from its creator, Will Fenton (via Skype). As a class we explored the site together and received a contextual overview of the Paxton pamphlet war. The contextual information helped us better understand the significance of our assignment in relation both to our course and to the work of historians more broadly. Moreover, the personal touch of talking to the website’s creator cultivated greater interest in the project.

The directions for the assignment were simple: transcribe one page assigned from the Friendly Association manuscripts (Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections) and write a three-paragraph essay about what the page contained, whose voice it was written in, and who it excluded, and how it felt to participate in this transcription process as a historian. Students did not use any transcription aids. We each viewed the manuscript page in a web browser (or printed it out), then typed transcriptions using a word processor. However, these seemingly simple directions proved more complicated to students who were uncertain how to format their transcription consistently or account for peculiar eighteenth-century abbreviations. Some students opted to peer-review one another’s assignments before turning them in, which helped improve consistency and their understanding of the materials with which they were working.

For some students, the public nature of the transcription increased their commitment to the assignment. In her essay on “Teaching the Digital Caribbean,” Kelly Baker Josephs discusses how adding the public as an audience for coursework creates a “performance” aspect that changes the course experience (Josephs 2018). We saw this with our class, as several students put more time and effort into the assignment, such as peer reviewing each others transcriptions, expressly because it would be shared publicly on a website.

Student Responses

Each student turned in a short essay detailing the content of their transcription, its biases, and their experience transcribing it. In addition, we had a class discussion on the greatest challenges in transcribing and practices that might improve the transcription process and make the final product more useful. One student, who described working with the source as both “tedious and exciting,” encapsulated the gist of most anonymous student responses to the assignment.[4] The most frequent obstacles identified were difficulty reading the handwriting, deciphering inconsistent capitalization and spelling, differentiating between vowels as well as lowercase “L’s” and “F’s,” and unfamiliarity with the long “S.” While the scans were clear, some students had trouble reading their assigned text because authors often used both sides of the page, the ink bleeding through from one side to the other. One student suggested that reading the text and then rereading it before transcribing made it easier to understand the content. Others said that they needed more knowledge not only of paleography and period syntax, but also context about the history of the time period, region, and specific event in which these papers were situated. Without such broader knowledge, students sometimes struggled to transcribe local place names, like “Minisinks,” and the names of subjects in the documents, especially Native Americans, such as “Scarroyada.”

Nevertheless, many of the same students who struggled to decipher the eighteenth-century English and handwriting still expressed an appreciation for, and a better understanding of, the work of historians. One student wrote, “I’m quite honored and impressed that I had the opportunity to participate in the understanding and detailing of history, especially in the turn of the Revolution.” Several others professed a “newfound respect for historians” and claimed that they felt like they were “doing the work of a real historian.”

Most of the students were not history majors, and for many, this was the first time they had engaged with primary sources. Most of their previous coursework in history had focused on secondary source readings about big ideas and events, which students assessed through essay-writing assignments. One respondent noted that, “working with primary sources feels much more immersive and enlightening, in terms of being able to see a glimpse of what their life was like and the issues they dealt with in their time.”

While the process of transcribing manuscripts was monotonous, students said that work with handwritten letters changed the way they engaged with materials. One student said, “It felt good to work with a primary source such as this letter, and be able to see the firsthand view of the writer and a glimpse of their world.” Several students also welcomed access to Native American voices, who are often silenced in settlement narratives. This recognition encouraged them to grapple with the possibility that some of these documents may not have been telling the whole truth about the event. One student even mused that soon historians might have to decipher audio sources rather than interpret handwriting.

These student responses align with pedagogical scholarship. Notably, William Kashatus posits that close analysis of primary sources gives students a more personal understanding of history. Because primary sources can “evoke emotional responses,” students are better able to “identify with the human factor in history, including the risks, frailties, courage, and contradictions of those who shaped the past” (2002, 7). According to Kashatus, students are better able to recognize the biases in historical records and assess their own contemporary biases, and those of modern-day media, when they have engaged with close-readings of historical sources in the classroom (2002, 7–8). Student feedback from our classroom assignment reflects that students felt they gained a sense of intimacy with historical writers. Avishag Reisman and Sam Wineburg, writing about the new common core standards, have argued that working with primary source materials challenges students to think carefully about what does and does not count as evidence. Reisman and Wineburg argue that primary source materials compel students to “interrogate the reliability and truth claims” rather than to simply “cull” evidence (2012, 25-26). Through transcription work, students must read the text word-for-word, compelling them to think more critically about what is being expressed and not to take a document’s message at face value.

Gathering Survey Data

Although the students’ comments were helpful, we realized we needed more feedback before we pursued any future crowdsourced transcription projects. To that end, we administered an anonymous one-page survey to the participants of a transcribe-a-thon event at Loyola organized by the Center for Textual Studies and Digital Humanities in conjunction with a nationwide event. Approximately 70 students, staff, and faculty attended, 43 of whom elected to complete the survey. Additionally, we administered the survey to 21 students enrolled in a 100-level “Interpreting Literature” class. For the transcribe-a-thon, participants used a subscription-based transcription program called FromThePage.

The survey consisted of nine total questions, with six multiple choice and three open-ended questions. Questions solicited feedback on the ease of participants’ use of the transcription program and the experience of transcribing itself. Two questions asked about the participants’ perceived value of the experience of transcribing. At the end, participants were asked to provide an email if interested in future transcription projects. The anonymous survey results highlighted what elements of transcription work most engaged participants and what challenges or barriers thwarted their participation. Thus, the survey offered concrete data to support ideas that emerged from student feedback in the Loyola/Shepherd assignment. From these conclusions we gained insights into what would make a successful transcription project for interacting with digitized early American documents, and those insights informed the guides we created for Digital Paxton.

One key difference was experiential: students preferred the communal work of a transcribe-a-thon to the solitary work of a for-credit assignment. While the majority of both sets of students said that they found the experience valuable, more transcribe-a-thon participants recorded satisfaction. Additionally, a much higher percentage of transcribe-a-thon participants expressed interest in future transcription projects (82% of event participants compared to 38% of classroom participants).

We evaluated these discrepancies using responses to the open-ended questions, which included a question about what was the most valuable part of the experience. The classroom included some but not all of the additional contextualizing elements that were included in the event, such as the talks and recitations of historical speeches and songs. These elements, combined with the celebratory atmosphere of the event (held as a birthday celebration for Frederick Douglass), helped to affirm the sense that participants were both learning and contributing to a living project. The survey results and our experience with the transcribe-a-thon show us that transcription projects not only get students working with primary materials, contributing to scholarly work, and learning to use digital tools, but they also inspire students to participate in future projects.

Translating Feedback into Practice

Student feedback and survey responses provided some clear takeaways for Digital Paxton. Although incorporating a transcription project into a class’s curriculum and awarding class credit and public access incentivized students’ contributions, assignments needed to be structured to foreground both historical and logistical context for transcriptions. Additionally, assignments needed to emphasize the importance of student transcriptions to the long-term goals of the project. When we began contributing transcriptions to Digital Paxton, the project did not have guidelines for transcriptions or a built-in transcription platform.

We developed a “Transcription Best Practices” guide for Digital Paxton, now available in both the Transcription and Pedagogy sections of the site for educators who want to introduce similar assignments in their classrooms. In it, we attempted to anticipate contextual questions that might arise during an assignment. We used the feedback from the Loyola/Shepherd assignment to pinpoint the most important contextual clues needed. We included images of eighteenth century writing conventions, such as the elongated “s” and the shortening of common words like “which” to “w/ch.”By equipping potential transcribers with the materials they need to understand the papers in their historical and cultural context—the guidelines, site introduction, and historical overviews—we met a need expressed in our survey results.

Digital Paxton’s overview of the conflict provides contexts for an event with which students are only vaguely familiar, but it does not necessarily supply students with definitive answers. Students build intimacy with the text by describing it, having to assess as they go along the choice of language and style used. Writing out the text seemed to improve students’ reading comprehension. By adding transcription guidelines, we further sought to help students avoid getting bogged down by the complication of language or handwriting. In their response essays, students use the text they transcribed as “evidence” about where the author stood ideologically within the conflict and how the conflict unfolded. As one student described, the source was a piece to their understanding of the larger puzzle.

Selecting a platform and developing a process through which future cohorts could contribute to the project were more complicated. After all, our approach—toggling between a web browser and word processor—would not work well for larger classes or transcription projects. We had three key stipulations for a prospective transcription platform: it had to be easily accessible to and usable for transcribers, well-supported, and interoperable with Scalar. We identified two platforms that met most of our requirements: Scripto and FromThePage. Both enabled users to record transcriptions alongside scanned pages, a priority, for students in the “Digitizing the Revolution” course. Scripto offered a free, open-source transcription tool, but it was not being fully supported by the developers, and we did not know if it would continue to be supported in the future. Moreover, Scripto required scanned pages to be migrated from Scalar to Omeka. We selected FromThePage because it was well-supported, did not require an Omeka installation, and Fenton could use his university library’s subscription (Fordham University).

On a logistical side, the survey responses also helped us understand the barriers to using online transcription tools. The most prevalent issue was readability of the scanned text, followed by challenges navigating the transcription platform. While there are limitations to how much can be done to address manuscript readability, especially when it comes to eighteenth-century manuscript material, we took the latter concern into account when we created “Using FromThePage.” In that documentation we sought to create clear, concise instructions on how to use FromThePage in conjunction with Digital Paxton. This effort included screenshots illustrating how to register as a user and how to locate pages available for transcribing, a key issue for participants at the transcribe-a-thon. By anticipating user experience issues, we hope to enable students to lose themselves in the rich texts and contexts on Digital Paxton, rather than spend valuable time and energy troubleshooting the mechanics of the process.

Future Collaborations

While our experiment in student manuscript transcription was not without its limitations, the process of pursuing student involvement and recording student feedback have made Digital Paxton a more effective teaching tool. Thanks to the labors of Kate Johnson, Kelly Schmidt, and Marie Pellissier, the project now includes best practices for transcribing eighteenth-century manuscripts (Transcription Best Practices), an assignment for integrating a similar exercise into a university classroom (Transcription Assignment), and a platform through which any educator may bring Friendly Association manuscripts into her classroom (Transcriptions).

From our research and practical experience, we have found that transcription of primary sources encourages students to read texts more closely, to view writers as human beings (rather than detached historical figures), to confront archival gaps, silences, and erasures, and to view their work as contributory to a collaborative project. In her recent post at the National Archives, Meredith Doviak wrote that with increased digital access to collections, students now have more opportunity to become “active critics and curators of those literary productions rather than mere explicators of them” (2017). Transcription projects can serve as vehicles through which students act as participants in knowledge creation, honing valuable critical thinking skills and a historically-informed sense of media literacy that will serve them well inside and outside the classroom.

Notes

[1] Nearly every study of the Paxton crisis cites Dunbar’s 60-year-old edition, and for good reason: it collects 28 noteworthy pamphlets and provides a useful introduction to the debate. Time has, however, revealed the edition’s limitations, foremost, its narrow selection of materials. Alison Gilbert Olson (1999) has since identified at least 63 pamphlets and 10 cartoons, and the distinction between pamphlets and political cartoons is itself ambiguous, given that many cartoons were nested inside of pamphlets, many of which circulated in multiple editions.
[2] Students can surface new perspectives from indigenous peoples and backcountry settlers by attending to a diverse set of records, all of which are available as open-access, print-quality images. Today, the project features more than 2,500 images, including 16 artworks, three books, 17 broadsides, 128 manuscripts, 26 newspaper and periodical issues, 69 pamphlets, and nine political cartoons, many of which have never before been digitized.
[3] For example, visitors will find a credit to Emina Hadzic at the bottom of her transcription of “Various Memoranda” (http://digitalpaxton.org/works/digital-paxton/various-memoranda-1760—1-1). She was also acknowledged (and tagged) in social media posts on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
[4] Quotations in this section come from anonymous student answers to a course survey and are reproduced with names withheld by mutual agreement. “Explore Common Sense Survey,” administered by Kate Johnson, Marie Pellissier, and Kelly Schmidt. February 1, 2018.

Bibliography

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi. 2009. “The Danger of a Single Story.” Filmed July 2009 at TED Global. TED video, 18:43.
https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story/transcript.

Clement, Tanya, Brian Croxall, et al. 2011. “Collaborators’ Bill of Rights.” Off the Tracks: Laying New Lines for Digital Humanities Scholars. Media Commons Press.
http://mcpress.media-commons.org/offthetracks/part-one-models-for-collaboration-career-paths-acquiring-institutional-support-and-transformation-in-the-field/a-collaboration/collaborators’-bill-of-rights.

Doviak, Meredith. 2017. “Teaching from the Archives.” Education Updates(blog). National Archives. February 9, 2017.
https://education.blogs.archives.gov/2017/02/09/teaching-from-archives/.

Grant-Costa, Paul and Tobias Glaza, and Michael Sletcher. 2012. “The Common Pot: Editing Native American Materials.” Scholarly Editing: The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing 33: 1–17.
http://scholarlyediting.org/2012/pdf/essay.commonpot.pdf.

Josephs, Kelly Baker. 2018. “Teaching the Digital Caribbean: The Ethics of a Public Pedagogical Experiment.” The Journal of Interactive Technology & Pedagogy 13.
https://jitp.commons.gc.cuny.edu/teaching-the-digital-caribbean-the-ethics-of-a-public-pedagogical-experiment/.

Kashatus, William C. 2002. Past, Present & Personal: Teaching Writing in U.S. History. Portsmouth: Heinemann Educational Books.

Olson, Alison Gilbert. 1999. “The Pamphlet War over the Paxton Boys.” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 123, no. 1/2: 31–55. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20093260.

Perry, Adele. 2005. “The Colonial Archive on Trial: Possession, Dispossession, and History in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia.” Archive Stories: Facts, Fictions, and the Writing of History: 325–50. https://doi.org/10.1215/9780822387046-015.

Reisman, Avishag, and Sam Wineburg. 2012. “Text complexity in the history classroom: Teaching to and beyond the common core.” Social Studies Review 51, no. 1: 24–29.

Sample, Mark. 2011. “Building and Sharing (When You’re Supposed to Be Teaching).” Journal of Digital Humanities 1, no. 1 (Winter).
http://journalofdigitalhumanities.org/1-1/building-and-sharing-when-youre-supposed-to-be-teaching-by-mark-sample.

About the Authors

Will Fenton is the Director of Scholarly Innovation at the Library Company of Philadelphia, the Creative Director of Redrawing History: Indigenous Perspectives on Colonial America, funded by The Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the founder and editor of Digital Paxton. Will earned his Ph.D. at Fordham University, where he specialized in early American literature and the digital humanities. He is the recipient of prestigious fellowships from the American Philosophical Society; Haverford College Quaker and Special Collections; the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory; the Library Company of Philadelphia; the Modern Language Association; and the Omohundro Institute of Early American History & Culture. His writings have appeared in American QuarterlyCommon-Place, and ESQ and in numerous public platforms, including Inside Higher Ed, Slate, and PC Magazine.

Kelly Schmidt, co-creator of ExploreCommonSense.comis Research Coordinator for the Slavery, History, Memory, and Reconciliation Project, co-sponsored by Saint Louis University and the Jesuits of the Central and Southern United States. She is a PhD candidate at Loyola University Chicago, where her research focuses on slavery, race, and abolition. Kelly has pursued her interests in museum work, public history, and digital humanities at several institutions, including the Heritage Village Museum, Cincinnati Museum Center, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, and the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation.

Kate Johnson is an archival assistant at the University of Northern Colorado’s Archives and Special Collections. She earned her M.A. in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and her B.A. in History and German from the University of Northern Colorado. Her research interests are in women’s history, cultural history, and early America. She has worked in museums and public history institutions for over ten years, including holding positions at the Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, The Women and Leadership Archives, and the Frances Willard House Museum. She is a co-creator of the site, ExploreCommonSense.com and also currently serves as an appointed member of the National Council on Public History’s Digital Media Group.

Distorted image of institutional logo
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Born-Digital Archives in the Undergraduate Classroom

Abstract

This case study describes a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at a small liberal arts college. This course explored the concept of “born-digital archives” and asked the following questions: How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented and fragile knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will continue to serve as record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant?

The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We examined issues related to the ethics of appraisal, privacy, digital obsolescence, underrepresented communities, media studies, and collective memory. A series of hands-on lab sessions gave students the technical skills to create their own web archives on the Archive-It platform. For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices and concerns, as well as our personal and collective responsibilities as media producers and consumers. This article addresses the lessons learned when adapting professional practices for an undergraduate audience.

Introduction

“The average lifespan of a webpage is 100 days.” This striking statistic has made its way into several popular magazine articles in the last few years. These articles, published in places like The Atlantic (LaFrance 2015) and The New Yorker (Lepore 2015) are alarmist in tone, but they do dispel the notion that the web is a place of permanence. The mourning period for Geocities may be over, but the recent shuttering of Storify, and Photobucket’s “breaking of the Internet” by blocking image links for thousands of users following a subscription restructuring (Notopoulos 2017) remind us that our content will not be available in perpetuity. Even the source of this statistic was hard to track down due to link rot.[1]

It was experiences similar to this one—the troublesome journey through dead links to verify a citation—that inspired the creation of a first-year undergraduate seminar on the topic of born-digital archives, as a way to engage students in the realities of accessing and constructing a historical record. One of the exciting outcomes of the popularity of digital humanities projects in the undergraduate classroom is the increased engagement with the material and staff of local archives and special collections. For college students born in the twenty-first century, these DH projects create a tangible connection with a past where letters, ledgers, and newspapers were the primary modes of mass communication and record keeping. But what about the artifacts of our time? We produce millions of records on a daily basis in the form of email, social media, and the detritus of a 24-hour news cycle. Will these records even survive 100 days? How will future scholars understand the twenty-first century world of fragmented, fragile, and ephemeral knowledge production and storage? What can creators do to ensure their content will survive as a record of their community? How do archivists adjust to a new paradigm where collecting decisions must be made in an instant? Digital archivists are starting to figure out how to handle the vast volumes of data at risk. Just as importantly, they are working to establish best practices for ethical collecting. Is anything on the web fair game for capture? Is it right to ignore robots.txt? For undergraduates, a course on born-digital archives can provide a critical window into understanding modern archival practices, as well as their own responsibilities as media producers and consumers.

This View from the Field will describe a first-year seminar titled “Born Digital,” taught by a university library faculty member within a digital humanities curricular initiative at Washington and Lee University.[2] Since this course was taught at the introductory level in a multi-disciplinary environment, its methods and assignments could be adapted to a variety of classes. The course embedded significant training in digital competencies and information literacy skills within a seminar on digital memory and archival theory. We began with reflective conversations on the experience of being a “digital native,” and then moved on to exploring the concepts and skills necessary to create a born-digital archive using the Archive-It platform.[3] This case study will share the lessons learned while adapting professional archival practices for an undergraduate audience.

Course Design and Framing

How do born-digital objects and records change the way we approach teaching? There is an abundance of literature on teaching with archival material and digital technologies. A search for model courses returns digital history courses similar to Shawn Graham’s “Crafting Digital History”[4] and graduate-level courses on digital preservation from library and information programs. Creating a seminar on born-digital archives required adapting these graduate-level models to an undergraduate audience unfamiliar with the professional and methodological practices of archivists and historians.

Because our course explored new territory, it was essential to find readings that exposed students to the rich scholarly conversation around archival principles without weighing them down with jargon. Several texts met these criteria and were instrumental in shaping the course. Abbey Smith Rumsey’s When We Are No More (2016) provides a high-level view of our relationship with information. From the ancient Greeks to the development of modern science, Rumsey contextualizes the modern information revolution for students who were born after the invention of Google and reminds us that “we have a lot of information from the past about how people have made these choices before” (Rumsey 2016, 7). For the nuts and bolts of digital preservation, we relied on Trevor Owens’s Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation (2017), available as a pre-print at the time of the course. Not only is Owens well respected in the digital preservation world, his writing is engaging and approachable for undergraduates. Owens’s purpose for the text, offering “a path for getting beyond the hyperbole and the anxiety of ‘the digital’ and establish[ing] a baseline of practice” (Owens 2017, 6) fit well with the goals of the course. Our final course text, The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and Present (Brügger and Schroeder 2017), was essential for modeling the way scholars make meaning from born-digital archives. Ian Milligan’s chapter, “Welcome to the web: The online community of Geocities during the early years of the World Wide Web,” contextualizes Geocities in its time and provides examples of computational approaches to web archives (Brügger and Schroeder 2017).

The learning objectives for the course, listed below, drew from overlapping frameworks.

  • Students will learn and be able to apply the principles of archival theory and practice.
  • Students will think critically about the use and creation of digital records in their own lives and communities.
  • Students will analyze “born digital” archives through the lens of their chosen discipline(s).
  • Students will practice methods for collecting and preserving born-digital archives by conducting their own digital preservation project.

These objectives gesture toward the established digital humanities learning outcomes from A Short Guide to the Digital_Humanities[5] (Burdick et al. 2012), adopted by our curricular initiative. These outcomes emphasize the ability to assess information technologies and practice design thinking. The Association of College and Research Libraries’ Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education served as this course’s backbone (Association of College and Research Libraries 2015).[6] Students were asked to think critically about information in every assignment. From writing an annotated bibliography to creating metadata for their web archive, students moved from savvy information consumers to thoughtful information producers. The lab exercises drew from Bryn Mawr’s Digital Competencies initiative and framework. Students developed “digital survival skills” like file structure navigation, troubleshooting, and digital writing and publishing skills like HTML and CSS (Bryn Mawr College n.d.).

Structure and Assignments

This course[7] took place during a twelve-week term in the winter of 2018. We met for ninety minutes twice a week and divided the week into discussion and lab days. Thematically, the course began with three weeks of introductions to the major concepts of the course: the idea of the “digital native,” collective memory, record keeping, and archives as institutions. The first assignment was a personal essay on these concepts and provided an initial indication of students’ comprehension and writing ability. Starting with this framing gave students an opportunity to share personal information and ultimately created a strong sense of community within the class.

In week four, we transitioned out of the personal sphere with a visit to the university library’s Special Collections and Archives department. After an introduction to the unit and its operations, students formed small groups and selected from a small pool of manuscript collections. For the second assignment, students unpacked each collection to learn about its creator, context, and provenance. The hands-on experience with archival sources readied them to consider individual archival principles like original order and respect des fonds (the idea that archival records should be grouped by creator). We even discussed the role and resources of the Special Collections and Archives department within our institutional context.

After week seven, we devoted each week to discussing one aspect of the records management lifecycle—appraisal, acquisition, arrangement and description, access, and outreach. Students worked toward their final project through a series of assignments: an annotated bibliography of existing born-digital collections and scholarly articles on a potential topic, a proposal for their born-digital collection, a process log, a short presentation, and a final reflection. Their final project was conducted through an educational partnership with Archive-It, a web archiving service. For a fee, we received 15GB of space in an Archive-It account and a live training session from an Archive-It staff member. Students selected ten websites on a topic of their choosing, from NFL protests to cryptocurrency.[8] They crawled each of their URLs to create a snapshot that would be preserved by the Internet Archive. The process log was the primary graded product to ensure that platform difficulties did not unevenly affect students.

Labs and Technical Skills

Throughout the course, we held a series of lab days to learn the technical skills necessary for the web archiving project. Lab days were relaxed and instructions were available on the course website so students could work at their own pace. Grouping students by operating system helped with peer-to-peer problem solving when technical errors occurred. On the first day, we built simple websites with HTML and CSS—essential languages for troubleshooting captured websites in Archive-It. Another lab session focused on the command line, using existing tutorials like “The Command Line Crash Course (Shaw n.d.).[9] This skill came in useful when a guest speaker led a workshop on Twarc, a command line tool for capturing social media data (specifically Twitter), created by Documenting the Now.[10] One of the most engaging lab days was spent making glitch art to complement our discussion of file fixity in digital objects. We modified images and audio by opening the files in a text editor and scrambling the content to demonstrate the fragility of digital files.

All of the labs contributed to improving computer and web literacies. Despite their reputation as digital natives, most of the first-year students did not know much about how the web worked. Working with HTML or the command line was an exciting look behind the curtain. Not only did the labs improve specific skills, they helped students become comfortable learning and troubleshooting digital tools.

Results

Students successfully achieved the goals of this course. The primary challenge from the instructor’s point of view was translating professional concepts to a first-year audience. The projects and lab activities were essential in bringing archival principles to life. The opportunity to work with manuscript collections was a highlight for many students and let them experience the realities of archival work. By using the Archive-It platform, students created something that would live beyond them and the bounds of the course. Working with their own topic was both exciting and challenging. It created a strong level of investment, but required explicit training in generating an appropriate research agenda.

Overall, most students easily met the first two learning objectives of learning archival principles and thinking critically about their own digital footprint. Student performance was uneven regarding the more analytical objectives, such as analyzing existing born-digital archives and creating their own collection. Project-based assignments were new to these first-year students, as was the emphasis on process over product. Student evaluations were positive, with most citing the value of learning about an underrepresented field and gaining a new perspective. However, from the instructor perspective, the best method of assessment would be to track the information literacy practices of the students throughout their college career. As the digital humanities curriculum initiative transitions into a digital culture and information minor, hopefully this type of assessment will be possible.

Conclusion

A course centered on archival research, whatever form it may take, is an ideal vehicle for teaching a range of scholarly practices and content areas. It is important for current students to be able to assess and understand the digital content they consume and produce every day. A course on born-digital archives opens the possibilities beyond specific manuscript collections or institutional records to anything on the web. Students held a range of opinions on the trustworthiness of the government and private institutions as preservers of the cultural record, but they all recognized the value in taking ownership of your data and preventing gaps and biases in collections. Their reflections consistently mentioned the importance of community-created and -controlled archives. Hopefully this case study inspires other instructors to make use of born-digital archives in their teaching.

Notes

[1] “The Signal,” the Library of Congress’s blog on digital stewardship, cites a Washington Post article (Ashenfelder 2011) as the source for this statistic, but their embedded link results in a 404 for an individual’s blog. Tracking down the Washington Post article in a subscription-based newspaper database indicates that the quote was attributed to Brewster Kahle, founder of the Internet Archive, though no context or evidence is given.

[2] More information is available at https://digitalhumanities.wlu.edu/.

[3] Archive-It is a subscription-based web archiving service offered by the Internet Archive. The university library sponsored an “Educational Partnership” account for this course. Archive-It works with a variety of partners, including K-12 schools. They can be found at http://archive-it.org/.

[4] Available at http://site.craftingdigitalhistory.ca/.

[5] Available at http://jeffreyschnapp.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/D_H_ShortGuide.pdf.

[6] Available at http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

[7] The course website is hosted on the GitBook platform and synced with the instructor’s GitHub account: https://mackenziekbrooks.gitbooks.io/dh-180-born-digital/content/.

[8] The final projects can be accessed here: https://archive-it.org/organizations/1374.

[9] Available at https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

[10] Documenting the Now is a collaborative effort to build community and tools around social media preservation. It can be accessed at https://www.docnow.io/.

Bibliography

Ashenfelder, Mike. 2011. “The Average Lifespan of a Webpage” The Signal. November 8, 2011. http://blogs.loc.gov/thesignal/2011/11/the-average-lifespan-of-a-webpage/.

Association of College and Research Libraries. 2015. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.” February 9, 2015. http://www.ala.org/acrl/standards/ilframework.

Brügger, Niels, and Ralph Schroeder, eds. 2017. The Web as History: Using Web Archives to Understand the Past and the Present. London: UCL Press. http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/1542998/1/The-Web-as-History.pdf.

Bryn Mawr College. n.d. “Digital Competencies” Accessed June 29, 2018. https://www.brynmawr.edu/digitalcompetencies.

Burdick, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp, eds. 2012. Digital Humanities. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

LaFrance, Adrienne. 2015. “Raiders of the Lost Web.” The Atlantic, October 14, 2015. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/10/raiders-of-the-lost-web/409210/.

Lepore, Jill. 2015. “What the Web Said Yesterday.” The New Yorker, January 19, 2015. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/01/26/cobweb.

Notopoulos, Katie. 2017. “Photobucket Is Holding People’s Photos For ‘Ransom.’” BuzzFeed. July 7, 2017. https://www.buzzfeed.com/katienotopoulos/photobucket-just-killed-a-chunk-of-internet-history.

Owens, Trevor. 2017. The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press. https://osf.io/preprints/lissa/5cpjt.

Rumsey, Abby Smith. 2016. When We Are No More: How Digital Memory Is Shaping Our Future. New York: Bloomsbury Publishing USA.

Shaw, Zed A. n.d. “Appendix A: Command Line Crash Course.” Learn Python the Hard Way. Accessed November 25, 2018. https://learnpythonthehardway.org/book/appendixa.html.

About the Author

Mackenzie Brooks is Assistant Professor and Digital Humanities Librarian at Washington and Lee University. There, she teaches in the Digital Culture and Information minor and coordinates Digital Humanities initiatives. Her research focuses on digital pedagogy, scholarly text encoding, and metadata.

1939 cartoon of caricatures at the NYPL reading room
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The Space Between Researcher, Object, Institution: Building Collaborative Knowledge with Primary Sources

Abstract

As archival and special collections resources become increasingly available in digital environments, our need to understand these documents in the context of their original material forms remains. As a result, techniques for teaching primary source literacy are a topic of rich discussion in special collections, archives, and library institutions, especially as information professionals consider ways to expand both research and readership. In light of the significant focus on undergraduate populations in many case studies on special collections pedagogy, this article discusses a year-long pilot program titled “The Collaborative Research Seminar on Archives and Special Collections” between the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library. To frame this interdisciplinary graduate seminar, which addressed both the theory and praxis of primary source research, I first discuss pedagogical frameworks, including Jacques Rancière’s critique of explication and Paulo Freire’s “banking model,” alongside Adrienne Rich’s teaching notes from her time at CUNY and Patrick Williams’ work on embodiment and archives. I then explore participant responses that address imagination, experimentation, and identification in the reading room—especially after the methods of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a key contributor to this program. By enumerating the practices that informed and constituted the Seminar, I suggest that we might consider conversation, experience, and experimentation as fundamental values in special collections pedagogy.

As we envision the digital futures of books, manuscripts, and archives, there is no substitute for historicization: books and manuscripts are technologies too, and foregrounding this perspective allows us to contextualize our work with digital facsimiles, metadata, and resources. This conversation far predates our current moment of digital profusion; in Orality and Literacy (1982), Walter J. Ong compares Plato’s critique of writing to contemporaneous critiques of computation, noting that “once the word is technologized, there is no effective way to criticize what technology has done with it without the aid of the highest technology available.” Ong continues, arguing that this technology is not “merely used to convey the critique” but rather brings “the critique into existence” (78). To corroborate this: when we explore the implications of our material history, our work increasingly, though not exclusively, occurs within or alongside digital context. We write about rare and archival materials in digital spaces, create digital repositories of items, and use digital methods to analyze documents, from transcription services to x-ray spectroscopy. Yet handling, working with, and conceptualizing primary source materials are skills that can be gained through a combination of experience and instruction. Forms of digital access to these items do not circumvent the need for these skills, but only expand their value.

While there are decades of research on the concept of information literacy, the idea of “primary source literacy” is relatively nascent both as a professional term and as a template for specific pedagogical strategies (Carini 2016, 191). Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres’ “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise” (2003) posits an influential three-part standard: domain or subject-focused knowledge, artifactual literacy, and the idea of “archival intelligence,” which consists of understanding archival theory and practices, negotiating strategies to handle the ambiguity of primary sources, and creating meaning from the artifactual or material qualities of a source. In addition, professional organizations for libraries such as the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) and ACRL’s Rare Books and Manuscripts Section (RBMS) have formed a “Joint Task Force on Primary Source Literacy” (2015), whose guidelines have been approved as of 2018. These guidelines, which consolidate decades of work among information professionals in these organizations, attest to the growing importance of quantifying and understanding the ways in which we teach within special collections, archives, and libraries.

Today, teaching techniques that animate these guidelines are most visible in case studies or digital toolkits (such as Brooklyn Historical Society’s “Teach Archives” in 2013), designed to illuminate the pedagogy of specific institutions, as well as the Society of American Archivists’ recent publication series, “Case Studies on Teaching with Primary Sources (TWPS)” (2018), which animates the “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy” by the same organization. These resources are often extensive, such as Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises (Bahde, Smedberg, and Taormina 2014), a text designed to share both activities and types of learning goals across a range of collections and populations (vii). These techniques and examples often emphasize hands-on, lesson-based learning, as opposed to presentations or “show-and-tells” that exhibit materials but do not provide instruction on how to analyze them or access them in the context of a research visit. As embodied by Past or Portal?: Enhancing Undergraduate Learning through Special Collections and Archives (Mitchell, Seiden, and Taraba 2012), the increasing volume of specific case studies across materials and institutions contributes to the robust conversation on pedagogy in special collections, particularly at the undergraduate level. However, beyond resources such as the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) report, Terra Cognita: Graduate Students in the Archives (2016), which surveys the findings of the CLIR Mellon Fellowships for Dissertation Research in Original Sources, few resources or literature exists for teaching primary source literacy to graduate populations, especially in a multidisciplinary context.[1]

At the graduate level, students often seek basic training that echoes aspects of Yakel and Torres’ (2003) idea of primary source literacy and includes negotiating materials in special collections and archives, navigating catalogs and finding aids that are primarily hosted in digital spaces, and managing information and notes once in the reading room. The types of questions that accompany graduate-level primary source literacy align with Yakel and Torres’ concept of “archival intelligence,” and are enumerated in the CLIR report Terra Cognita (2016): “Navigating Institutions,” “Negotiating Expectations,” “Documenting Processes,” and “Finding What You Need”—all essential aspects of archival research that involve technical knowledge, critical thinking, project management, and interpersonal skills. However, particularly in fields with a strong theoretical component, or in programs that require teaching, graduate students are also often primed for conversations not just on resources or skill development but also on special collections pedagogy itself. Special collections-based classes with graduate students are not just an opportunity to impart skills or information, but to critically examine “the archive” as a theoretical, conceptual, and literal space. As a result of the so-called “archival turn” in literary studies, for instance, sparked in part by Jacques Derrida’s Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (1995), the idea of the archive, which graduate students often theorize in their work, may have little in common with an institution they visit to conduct research that is staffed by humans (not theories), with unique management and custodial procedures, reflecting a history all its own. In particular, scholars and archivists have different stakes in their definitions of what constitutes an archive or special collection, and how these sites signify critically, conceptually, and literally. By speaking across these disciplinary boundaries, we can more equitably offer credit and share responsibilities for making the material traces of history visible and accessible to those who need them. And given the critical possibilities of this interaction, special collections pedagogy stands to benefit from a model in which knowledge of primary source work is not just transmitted, but actively co-created with a highly proficient and critically engaged population.

To frame key features of critical pedagogy specifically for work in special collections,[2] we might consider the standard “show-and-tell” class visit, in which a librarian or curator imparts information about objects on display, as an example of Paulo Freire’s “banking model” of education from his canonical Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970). In this model, knowledge is “bestowed” by those in possession of it unto those who do not, and students may only participate in “receiving, filing, and storing the deposits” of knowledge they are granted within the educational context (72). While these “show-and-tells” often have a highly affective component—since generally the most striking or historically important objects are featured, which can feel special or exclusive—they rhetorically foreground a teaching model in which the instructor is the gatekeeper or expert, and students the initiates. This model, based on explication, is the target of Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1987), in which he argues that a student who “is explained to” is susceptible to submit to a “hierarchical world of intelligence,” in which an explanation can always be obtained or offered as superior to the student’s own intuition and research (8). Rancière suggests that by explicating, instead of fostering the development of communal knowledge and conversation that he terms “universal learning,” we may well reinstate hierarchies of knowledge that certainly apply to the special collections reading room and should be challenged: the trope of the omniscient librarian, or the equally inaccurate librarian who solely pages items without interest or understanding.

If we consider the dynamic of the reading room—the physical space in which archival encounters occur—they are not dissimilar to the hierarchies of access that Rancière (1987) describes within learning: the uneven distribution of knowledge in the room, the presence of obstacles or facilitators that mediate the flow of materials that may yield knowledge, the differing institutional and disciplinary vocabularies on either side of the reference desk. Many of these discrepancies may have practical and professional purpose; for instance, security considerations require material to be distributed according to certain protocols, and standards for metadata and cataloging are often in place to facilitate physical access and storage of materials. In addition, many misperceptions about the figure of librarian or archivist as all-knowing or gatekeeping conceal the fact that staff often work with little resources, within hierarchies of supervision, and in light of their own interests or challenges regarding the material in their care.

However, the presence of these limitations offers us critical possibility, and likewise opportunity to re-examine their usefulness as policies. For instance, Patrick Williams’ (2016) work on critical library pedagogy cites Audre Lorde’s exhortation to examine not just books, but also our interactions with them, and asks what possibilities might unfold if we approach special collections work in this embodied way (111). Continuing in this critical pedagogical vein, we might also consider Rancière’s (1987) idea of intelligence as “the power to make oneself understood through another’s verification,” which includes dialogue, participation, and experimentation (73). Together, these theories suggest that rather than a pedagogical model that views student knowledge, particularly at the graduate level, as deficient and in need of augmentation, teaching models within special collections might collaboratively cover the technical basics expressed by Yakel and Torres (2003)—such as negotiating discovery systems, reading a finding aid, or mastering a research statement in the reference interview—while also allowing students and facilitators to build and develop collective knowledge that addresses both practical and conceptual considerations for primary source work in a digital era. In doing so, we can reframe teaching and outreach as acts of equity and access, expanding the historically narrow range of who feels empowered to conduct primary source work.

In what follows, I will suggest how this teaching model applies specifically to interdisciplinary graduate populations, and will discuss the technical and conceptual underpinnings of a year-long project titled the “Collaborative Research Seminar on Archives and Special Collections,” conducted with staff and support from the Graduate Center, CUNY and the New York Public Library. This project entailed numerous group meetings to discuss institutional partnerships, pedagogy, and student research, and culminated in two two-hour long seminars each semester, each hosting under twenty students, faculty, and staff that had been selected by application. While many aspects of this project used digital platforms—for promotion of the event, for applications, for communicating with participants, for locating relevant materials, and for follow-up communication with participants who elected to write blog posts about the experience—the core of this program was conversational, in-person, and interactive with materials. And after Ong’s (1982) discussion of using the highest technology available to understand those prior, this project uses digital methods—such as this article, as well as student blogs—to make its non-digital elements visible. Not as a preliminary to digital work, but as an essential interlocutor for it, the Seminar focused on cultivating the in-person conversations, relationships, and experiences that prepare participants for confident and critical engagement with primary source materials. Thus, I present this project as a case study, for the specificity the genre offers, but also invested in developing a pedagogical frame that considers two core principles—conversation and experience—that allow us to not only impart primary source literacy skills, but also reconsider the possibilities of what counts as “research” in our embodied encounters with primary sources.[3]

The Seminar

Background

The Collaborative Research Seminar on Archives and Special Collections began as a project in the spring of 2017 to engage graduate students, faculty, and staff in academic and cultural institutions with primary source research methods, and to increase dialogue between the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library.[4] In early 2017, I developed the idea for the Seminar with Alycia Sellie, Assistant Professor and Associate Librarian for Collections at the Graduate Center, CUNY, as well as subject specialist for the English program. Adam Rosenkranz, Gale Burrow, and Lisa Crane (2016) at Claremont University, who document their own “Primary Source Lab Series” begun in 2012, cite this type of collaboration—between subject specialist and librarians—as an effective model for graduate-level primary source teaching. However, like many projects, this one began not with a literature review but with an immediate concern: as a specialist, my daily work consisted of collaborating with a variety of researchers and materials, while my evenings were spent working as a graduate student in the Graduate Center, CUNY’s English Ph.D. program. I wanted to consider a structure to share my experiences as a library specialist with my academic colleagues and also to create a platform for my Library colleagues to share their expertise, ideas, and sentiments about their work. This commitment to representing voices across institutions was comprehensive, and involved a Seminar committee that included the Graduate Center Library’s Alycia Sellie, Roxanne Shirazi, and Polly Thistlethwaite, the New York Public Library’s Jessica Pigza and Thomas Lannon, faculty advisors Ammiel Alcalay (Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative) and Duncan Faherty (The Early Research Initiative), the Center for the Humanities’ Kendra Sullivan and Sampson Starkweather, and Matthew K. Gold and Lisa Rhody from Graduate Center Digital Initiatives. Together, the committee negotiated pedagogical structure, the application process, and decisions that ultimately contributed to the collaborative nature of the program.[5] The Seminar was designed for the needs of an interdisciplinary and varied applicant pool, with the perspectives of numerous committee members, facilitators, and participants whose work addresses academia, radical archives, publishing, and special collections librarianship. As Marcus C. Robyns (2001) indicates, teaching primary sources beyond discipline-specific skills and knowledge allows us to envision “the archives [as] not only a repository of the past but also a challenging center of critical inquiry” with multiple interlocutors and facets, and the Collaborative Research Seminar sought to create an experience that spoke to this concept (365).

A key part of the Seminar’s pedagogy took up the primary source principles of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, begun in 2010. This publishing initiative, under the editorship of Ammiel Alcalay and consulting editorship of Kate Tarlow Morgan, in conjunction with staff from the Center for the Humanities, connects doctoral students and guest editors with projects that explore the archives of under-published and underrepresented authors of the twentieth century, as well as lesser or unknown aspects of well-known authors. The results are published annually and draw on a variety of authors from Langston Hughes to William S. Burroughs, Kenneth Koch to Toni Cade Bambara, Diane di Prima to Ed Dorn. As editor Megan Paslawski (2013) notes, the principle of Lost & Found is to “follow the person,” an ethos that Alcalay and the editors take literally—as in, visiting poets or the unexpected institutional and personal places their works lead—and also archivally. Instead of privileging scholarly conversations and secondary knowledge that categorizes materials, Lost & Found editors are encouraged to listen closely to the documents, engaging what their primary materiality might mean (8). Given Rancière’s (1987) Jacotot, whose teaching method rests on distributing literature and then engaging with it closely, carefully, and extensively without explication, Lost & Found’s exhortation to “follow the person” models a mode of both pedagogy and academic research centered on fidelity, community, connection. As Paslawski (2013) notes, this method “allow[s] more than words to be found” in its requirement that we examine what is there, listen to it on its own terms, and forsake traditional narratives about materials for the paths they indicate (9). This method encourages a different practice of engaging with archival materials, by fostering personal relationships with heirs and literary estates, former colleagues, and other archivists, editors, and scholars to generate new insights and interest in the subject. In particular, this entails “rescuing” literary figures from the way they have been historicized (or forgotten), in order to understand the person who actually was, and restoring the live-wire network of authors and collaborators instead of siloing authors by style or literary movement. While Lost & Found focuses on twentieth-century poetry that might broadly be considered as part of the New American poetry milieu (even as it challenges the value of such a categorization), its methods are applicable to a variety of primary sources—many of which we examined in the Collaborative Research Seminar itself.

As an essential teaching resource, Lost & Found has published archival materials on pedagogy that were generated by poets who taught at City University of New York, including Adrienne Rich, June Jordan, and Toni Cade Bambara. These poets were hired as instructors by Mina Shaughnessy, the Director of the CUNY SEEK Program (Search for Education, Elevation, and Knowledge) in the late 1960s. This program, which came to City College in 1965 as a pre-baccalaureate program, sought to provide additional instruction and educational support to students from a more diverse range of communities, and to increase the percentage of African-American and Puerto Rican students at City College (Rich et al. 2013, 1). In a chapbook of her archival materials from this era, Lost & Found editors include quotations by Adrienne Rich of Paulo Freire, among numerous other critical pedagogy voices, as she writes her own powerful methods of teaching. In her “Notes, Statements & Memos on SEEK, Basic Writing & the Interdisciplinary Program (1962-1972),” Adrienne Rich writes of her class English 1.8:

The problem for the teacher is to make the term’s work supportive and relevant for each and every student: to help dislocate ‘blocks,’ to open possibilities of expression, to help each student as much as possible to become the kind of writer he is meant to be. It is not simply to turn out 15 people who can pass the English proficiency examination, although we hope that that will inevitably result. (Rich et al 2013, 18-19)

While Rich’s subject is writing, this type of pedagogy is widely applicable. Rancière (1987) expresses similar sentiments—“the problem is to reveal an intelligence to itself”—but Rich’s model is distinctly expressive and supportive, beyond a baseline of fostering student self-motivation and independence (28). As with the Seminar, we might think beyond activities designed to produce proficiencies (like Rich, while acknowledging that these are essential), but look ahead to the outcome of fostering the unique type of primary source researcher our students want to and need to be. As with Rich’s pedagogy, this type of mentorship is an act of equity in its potential to expand who believes themself to be a writer, or an archival researcher—and thus, a custodian and author of our material history.

Implementation

As with any conversation on pedagogy, theoretical robustness depends on good implementation: this starts with understanding both learning goals and student needs. To learn more about self-reported student needs and interests, as well as manage enrollment numbers, the Seminar began its pilot year with an application process. Both the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library are considering how to contribute the resources necessary to continue, given that 117 students, faculty, and staff from primarily the Graduate Center, CUNY applied over the course of the pilot year in two application cycles. The volume of applicants attests to the need for this type of programming, and while the demand for the Seminar far exceeded our instructional capacity at the time, I connected with all applicants to provide additional resources and support for their work.[6] Expressing interest across a wide swath of disciplines, skill levels, and even academic status, the application results of the Collaborative Research Seminar foregrounded the need for pedagogy with an interdisciplinary audience in mind. Given that most case studies for special collections pedagogy focus on class-specific visits that have a set subject or topic, the Collaborative Research Seminar explores a teaching model that challenges us to give voice to interdisciplinary archival experiences.

The first iteration of the Seminar in Spring 2017 was hosted jointly at the Graduate Center Library and the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room of the New York Public Library, with a cohort of 12 participants selected from 58 applicants. The second iteration involved 19 participants from 59 applicants, as an experiment to determine scalability of the pedagogical model. Most of the participants were graduate students, with one or two faculty members at each Seminar; the committee decided to prioritize graduate student applications and work towards a different model to specifically address the different needs of faculty. All participants from both sessions were given the opportunity to publish a blog, funded by the Center for the Humanities, about their experience and the items they examined at the New York Public Library, and to join the working group Primary Source, also through the Center for the Humanities. Given also the inability of the program’s structure to accommodate all applicants due to staffing and resources—a conflict at odds with the very mission of the program to increase access to special collections work—much remains to be seen as to the possibilities of this model.[7]

Each Seminar consisted of two sessions—held for two hours in the evening, two weeks apart. The first session was hosted by the Graduate Center Library and oriented participants towards specific questions and concerns in archival work. The second session was hosted in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room at the New York Public Library, and consisted of hands-on experiences with collection holdings. I worked with staff from the New York Public Library to curate objects from the second session in response to conversations and feedback from the first session, either around an area of research interest or a theme in archival work. Each session concluded with a short exit survey that participants completed on paper, containing basic response questions, including hopes for future sessions or information that was helpful or still being digested. To accommodate the variety of skill levels in the Seminar, participants also received a sheet on how to handle special collections material, as well as a hand-out on other Graduate Center and New York Public Library collections and resources available to them as their research progresses.

In the Spring Seminar, with a cohort of 12 students, Alycia Sellie and I led the initial session of the first Seminar with an open-ended discussion on archival work. Topics discussed included challenges with finding relevant resources, negotiating expectations in reading rooms, and collaborating with archival staff. The session concluded with small group work browsing NYPL’s Archives Portal and digital catalog to find items of interest for the second session. Participants wrote suggestions for second session on notecards and submitted them before leaving. After a debriefing meeting that included feedback from the Seminar committee, I worked with Thomas Lannon and Jessica Pigza to lead the second session. Using New York Public Library collection materials from multiple curatorial units, we conceived of research tables as “stations” that addressed specific fields of knowledge or types of archival materials—including institutional records, books and annotation, serial publications, family papers, lightly processed archival boxes, and others. Items were arranged by their designated theme on a table, where participants were invited to rotate either solo or with colleagues to examine the materials. After rotating through stations, participants reconvened for a large group discussion about materials they encountered. The session ended with completion of feedback forms, and an invitation for participants to stay involved by writing a blog post or joining the working group for Primary Source at the Center for the Humanities.

The Fall Seminar operated on a similar principle, although with a slightly larger cohort of 19 participants. In advance of the first session, the Collaborative Research Seminar committee distributed a list of readings to participants to assist in framing their Seminar experience, including introductions to the field of archives as well as accounts of specific experiences with primary source work (Appendix A). To accommodate a larger cohort of students, the first session drew on the rotating station model of the second session of the first Seminar. Staffed by Meredith Mann (NYPL), Tal Nadan (NYPL), Alycia Sellie (GC CUNY), Roxanne Shirazi (GC CUNY), Thomas Lannon (NYPL), and myself, the rotating stations covered four main themes. These themes, collaboratively developed and inspired by Roxanne Shirazi’s sharing of the CLIR report Terra Cognita (2016), included “Navigating Institutions,” “Negotiating Expectations,” “Documenting Processes,” and “Finding What You Need.” Participants rotated through the first three stations for short amounts of time, and then remained as a whole group in the final station—an exploration of archival vocabulary, New York Public Library discovery tools, and a working session where the group populated a shared Google Doc with items of interest as a way to experiment with collections discovery. The relatively high ratio of facilitators to participants allowed for a variety of pedagogical approaches within each station—from small activities to open discussion—as well as offered participants an opportunity to meet and connect with librarians at the Graduate Center and the New York Public Library.

The second session of the Fall Seminar followed the model of the Seminar’s first iteration, featuring a series of curated stations designed around groups of documents from the New York Public Library’s curatorial units of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building. After rotating through a few stations, either collaboratively or solo, participants convened for a larger follow-up discussion. The session ended with completion of feedback forms, and an invitation for participants to stay involved by writing a blog post or joining Primary Source at the Center for the Humanities.

For both of the second sessions of the Seminar, material selection was an especially important component. We sought to not only choose generative items that spoke to multiple research possibilities, but to create a pedagogical framework in which participants could encounter these items with as little predetermination as possible. Given the interdisciplinary nature and varied skill levels of the participants, the principle of “listening closely” to documents on their own terms was key to the success of the hands-on portion of the Seminar. This was accomplished in part by mitigating expectations: in the application phase of the program, we asked participants to submit research interests, but reinforced that the Seminar was not a reference consultation and they were likely to encounter materials that did not speak to their current research topics. This openness was also facilitated by the manner in which participants were invited to encounter the materials themselves in the second session—by roaming from table to table, alone or among colleagues, for suggested ten-minute intervals.

Curated stations in the reading room had minimal didactics, generally only including a small slip that indicated whether or not items could be photographed for online distribution (as on social media networks, such as Twitter). For some archival materials, we would supply the finding aid or the catalog record as an additional object on the table in its own right, to facilitate the iterative practice of negotiating the physical object alongside its metadata. Participants were encouraged to learn about the materials in this exploratory manner by speaking with the session’s facilitators and their colleagues, as well as being attentive to the nature of the encounter itself, beyond how the item might apply to their specific research. We ended the second session with a framing discussion, that allowed us as a group to consider the possibilities and limitations of such an interdisciplinary openness to materials, and what types of encounters encourage increased comfort and skill with primary source work.

Specific examples of collection items from the first Seminar included Isaac Newton’s assistant’s edits on the Principia (1687), Wallace Berman’s innovative literary mail-magazine Semina, Sylvia Plath’s annotations of The Four Quartets, a copy of William Makepeace Thackeray’s Vanity Fair as a book-in-parts, Patti Smith’s notebooks juxtaposed alongside nineteenth-century commonplace books, a single box from the Timothy Leary Papers, Noah Webster’s correspondence with his daughters, among many others. These items, which range from rare books to periodicals, archival material to unique manuscript items, offered participants a variety of archival encounters to experience and discuss. Likewise, in the second session, selections included Muriel Rukeyser’s reading notes on Willard Gibbs, a collection of archival research done by Rukeyser; the mimeographed biweekly magazine, The Floating Bear, edited by Diane di Prima and LeRoi Jones; the San Quentin execution register; photographs by Jessie Tarbox Beals of the Health School at P.S. 40 in New York City in 1918, from the People’s Institute records; affidavits and inspector’s reports from Brooklyn and East Harlem from the Committee of Fifteen records; as well as documents relating to early printing in Peru, 1584-1628. Each of these stations presented a range of materials that, whether or not they directly addressed participants’ research field, afforded increased experience with the first steps of meaning-making with primary sources—to look closely, and listen to the documents.

This type of close attention was modeled in multiple ways across a single collection. The New Yorker records station, curated by Tal Nadan and Meredith Mann, contained a typescript of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and letters to the editor in response, a print copy of The New Yorker from the Library’s general research division, and a computer opened to the New Yorker Digital Archive database. Here, we encouraged participants to think of the different digital and paper materialities of these items and how they might serve varying forms of research. For instance, sometimes a searchable database of digitized items is far more expedient than searching individual items, depending on the research question. Through printouts of the digital catalog records and discussion of digital resources, we sought to underscore how different materialities address different research needs.

With material selections for special collections teaching, it is difficult to avoid the act of curation, which is traditionally associated with the “show-and-tell” format. Expertise and knowledge of collections is a valuable pedagogical resource, to frame disciplinary and methodological approaches to materials widely, as well as suggest the sheer variety of encounters that can occur in special collections. While the very act of creating stations constituted curation in the Seminar’s pedagogical model, the approach to material selection in conversation—noting its arbitrariness, its relationship to a librarian’s personal interest, and its value as an example of a type of record group—opened the idea of selection for questioning. In this way, by understanding that one must start somewhere for hands-on primary source work but that this act nevertheless predetermines the experience, the pedagogy of the Seminar used discussion to reframe and question the authority of material selection.

The final aspect of each iteration of the Seminar was post-assessment, a practice that is encouraged by Anne Bahde and Heather Smedberg (2012), who advocate for “measuring the magic” as an essential component to facilitate primary source literacy and build on Esther Grassian and Joan Kaplowitz’s (2009) instructional literacy assessments of reaction, learning, and performance assessments. These translate to three rhythmic questions: “did they like it?” “did they get it?” and “can they do it?” (156). To address this, the Seminar used a questionnaire assessment, which entailed completion of a paper exit survey after each session. For the initial session, questions focused on clarifying learning objectives and understanding how participants felt about the experience, and for the second session, the questions focused on the entire Seminar structure more broadly.

In terms of “did they like it”: all participants said they would recommend the program to a colleague, and when the second Seminar cohort was asked if their likelihood of using New York Public Library materials increased as a result of the Seminar, all answered affirmatively. The question of whether participants “got it” creatively appears in the resulting blog posts published through the Center for the Humanities, which I will address shortly. As for “can they do it”: the nature of graduate research is long and winding, with results diffused across publications, papers, and dissertations. Thus, while assessment is a key consideration, given the complexity of the materials and subjects we teach, metrics for assessment in graduate populations may ultimately constitute very long-term and qualitative information. In the case of the Seminar, while we have provisional information as to its reception and success, it may be too early to understand the impact on its participants and facilitators. What does offer extensive insight, however, are participant-generated blog posts that reflect on the experience.

Conversation and Archival Encounter

While the success of these Seminars in terms of quality of conversation, depth of thought, and general demand and interest is due to a special alchemy of enthusiastic instructors, participants, and diverse expertise, I observed two fundamental pedagogical features within the structure of the Collaborative Research Seminar. These two features—conversation, and what I will term the “archival encounter”—challenge the general protocols of the reading room in ways that are productive for both participants and instructors. In doing so, they offer an opportunity to rethink what is in fact occurring when we teach with special collections or work with primary source materials.

“The archive” is often an archetype of rules, silence, and prowess—quiet rooms with careful pencils, researchers with well-formulated questions, librarians as gatekeepers to the treasures. Even with proper training on and permission to handle rare items, students may, as Patrick Williams (2018) notes, appear “almost scared to move” (118). We might consider this timidity as a result of the aura of the materials themselves, as Williams discusses, and also the imposing aura of the institution—including reading room, policies, and atmosphere. These archetypes (and indeed, stereotypes) obscure many of the realities of reading rooms, from the intellectual labor of staff to institutional hierarchies and pressures, and deserve to be thoroughly questioned (if not outright debunked). Thus, to encourage conversation around methods, to invite participants to encounter materials without research questions, context, or any hope of being an instant expert, is to de-center the authority of the reading room and reference model of special collections. This act not only demystifies, but also reimagines what parts of the archival encounter might be considered research: emotion alongside analysis, touch alongside historical knowing.

In their assessment of an undergraduate-based special collections program, Melissa Hubbard and Megan Lotts (2013) reiterate the importance of responsiveness and experience in their program’s success, encouraging students to relate materials to their “own thoughts and feelings” as a way to “view themselves not only as consumers of information, but also as interpreters and creators” (32). Hubbard and Lotts describe a relatively familiar process to those who have worked in special collections: the realization that authority and answers are not to be uncovered and “consum[ed],” but rather forged. Like the methods of Rancière’s Jacotot, the experience of encountering primary sources—especially during a class visit, in the context of a seminar, or in early stages of research—defies simple explication or understanding and instead asks for more of the researcher: thinking, feeling, creating context. As Patrick Williams (2016) notes, the general focus on explication, or the “supplying [of] answers” in response to materials, is often transformed when the reading room becomes a classroom space, “relieved by the overwhelming impulse to notice the odd or unexpected attributes of the materials with which we share space” (118). Williams’ word, “relieved,” is critical to the affective experience of this type of encounter—when we examine items that are not part of our fieldwork, that float without context for that initial moment of encounter, the experience of archival work is suddenly not about context or answers, but about immediacy. The moment of the encounter becomes a close orbit between the object and the ability to make sense of its form, our feeling.

This intensity of encounter often leads to imagination and identification as powerful forms of archival knowing, such as those described by Iris Cushing (2017), a participant in the first Seminar who returned to the Berg Collection to work on The Floating Bear, a rapidly and frequently published mimeograph newsletter edited by Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka from 1961 to 1971. As part of her investigation, Cushing considers the question of context by examining the variety of authors represented in The Floating Bear, noting how the material document collapses the temporal distance between her and her subject, as well as creates a force-field of focus unto itself. Writing about these poets, she notes:

Those people are very close (their work is in my hands) and yet very far away (as it was made over half a century ago). In the Bear the names of the authors are placed after their work, so if I didn’t recognize the poem, I wouldn’t know who wrote it unless I turned a few pages. There’s no table of contents. The poem is the total focus of attention. I begin to read, my eyes wandering over the plain, uncluttered space of the page. (Cushing 2017)

While Cushing’s observations are specific to The Floating Bear’s decisions in layout and publishing, her statement that “the poem is the total focus of attention,” in the absence of paratextual information such as a table of contents, author biographies, or even secondary research in the moment of the encounter, might be a metaphor for the type of archival encounter that occurred in the Collaborative Research Seminar more generally. Cushing follows the imperative of the poem as “total focus of attention” as she states, “I begin to read,” offering a succinct methodology for archival work: find the focus in the material itself and encounter it on its own terms. Doing so, as she finds, leads to imaginative possibilities, generated by this specific materiality:

Sliding the very first issue of the Bear out of its white envelope, I found myself holding a stapled packet of 8 ½ x 11” pages, creased long ago from being folded in half for mailing. There was a purple 3-cent stamp in the top right corner, and a typed mailing label above the masthead, bearing the address of the poet John Wieners. Instantly I envisioned the young poet on a day 56 years ago, checking his mail, loosening the staple holding the newsletter closed (a staple now rusty with age) and sitting down to read it. (Cushing 2017)

Here, Cushing demonstrates not only the act of physically investigating the material for signs of its context—the fold in the paper, the stamp, the address—but also a key recipient, the poet John Wieners, wiggling the staple that holds the mimeographed pages closed. This act of imagination requires context—such as knowledge of Wieners’ status as a poet in the New American milieu, as well as the importance of The Floating Bear for creating poetic community when poets were far-flung, often broke, and hungry for each others’ work. However, as Cushing narrates, the act of sitting in a special collections reading room, imagining the addressee at a kitchen table, attests to the particular magic of primary source work—like crystals, these objects may hold energy of eras prior, memories, and experiences that we might tap into through imagination and experience. This collapse of boundaries is critical in the archival encounter, and the implementation of stations in the Collaborative Research Seminar intends to create space for these moments.

Writing on Valerie Solanas’s annotated SCUM Manifesto held in the Manuscripts Division, Collaborative Research Seminar participant Cory Tamler (2017) notes that

During the Collaborative Research Seminar we tried to think beyond the limitations of the practical and to imagine what might be possible within archives. I got fired up by instances of time leaving marks in an archive, on an object; an object’s temporal layers. What drew me to the annotated SCUM Manifesto is the way it contains two characters who are the same person. It’s a record of a conversation between the author and herself, but it’s a performative conversation, enacted for an audience (but what audience?) that was already historicizing her through public characterizations of her sexuality and mental health. It resists the freezing action of historicization, existing within time dynamically.

Together, conversation and “the encounter” in the Collaborative Research Seminar might echo Rancière’s (1987) idea of the material book as a site for “verification” based on its material qualities: “the materiality of each word, the curve of each sign” (15). When enmeshed as a pedagogical strategy, conversation and experience focus the instructors or facilitators not on verification of the student’s “knowledge, but the attention he gives to what he is doing and saying” (32). The second session is particularly instrumental for this process, since materials are presented as stations that participants can engage at will. Instructors may choose to circulate and linger around their favorite stations, sharing conversation with participants, or might abstain from revealing contextual details. The focus is not on transmitting knowledge, but on framing our experiences in terms of the material conditions that inspire them.

Conclusion

At its core, the move to create practical resources and theoretical constructs around the particulars of special collections pedagogy rests on a political and ethical imperative. The movement to reconsider radical, inclusive pedagogy and decenter the economic and cultural hierarchies that restrict access to education reminds us of important precedent for destabilizing the idea of who certain institutions are meant to serve. Libraries, from the nineteenth century onward, have served as symbols of democracy (even though they may be more accurately seen as testaments to benevolent capitalism)—the New York Public Library’s latest slogan is “Libraries are for Everyone,” and now, “Knowledge is Power.” At the same time, a public institution like the New York Public Library also contains reading rooms for rare books and archives, whose use is governed under significantly different conditions than the rest of the Library. While these practices are ultimately important for the safe preservation of materials, they nevertheless create mystique, and in some cases intimidation, for those who are not used to the rhythms of special collections—students who have not been told or taught that the materials of primary sources are theirs to examine, analyze, and place within history.

For instance, Cecilia Caballero’s (2017) “Mothering While Brown in White Spaces, Or, When I Took My Son to Octavia Butler’s Exhibit,” raised extensive conversation around institutional knowledge as a fundamental gatekeeping concern in primary source literacy, and in particular the political stakes of such uneven distribution of this knowledge. Caballero notes that while she applied to a fellowship to gain access to the Octavia Butler material at the Huntington Library, she took her unsuccessful application as an indication that she was not able to access the archive as a researcher and had to instead attend an exhibition of Butler’s work to examine it in person. While the Huntington Library, as well as many other major collections, permit researchers with a reference application alone, the fact that this only transparent to those already “in-the-know” poses a challenge to truly diversifying the researchers and research that occurs in special collections. Thus, to reconsider the role of special collections pedagogy as a fundamental act of access, and an act of making reading rooms more diverse and equitable, we must think critically about ways we might teach primary source research skills, including how to make meaning around objects, the institutions that hold them, and the community of people they engage.

As special collections continue to invest in digitization—whether that means making catalog records or finding aids available online, digitizing images of collection materials with accompanying metadata, or sharing born-digital materials in reading rooms and through online reference correspondence—we must consider how these materials are currently being used and also how they might possibly be used in the future. In determining the future of digitally-inflected archives and special collections, there is no substitute for conversations with the research populations we hope to serve and expand. To that end, the Seminar demonstrates through its teaching model, through student blogs, and through this very article, that the fundamental piece of context for primary materials is not necessarily secondary sources, nor is it an understanding of the differences between digital and analog archival objects. Rather, by understanding our embodied selves, we might collectively acknowledge the depth of knowledge that primary source practices afford.

It is my hope that the Collaborative Research Seminar might serve as an extensible and adaptable format for creating community and conversation between libraries and graduate institutions, as well as a model for an interactive approach to special collections pedagogy. While this collaborative model is an investment, for both institutions as participants, and requires extensive administrative support, as well as time spent teaching, coordinating student blogs, and following up with individual reference support, it nevertheless affords a starting point for thinking through specific practices of special collections pedagogy with graduate populations. In particular, it suggests that special collections pedagogy for graduate students is well-served by taking full advantage of methods that foreground conversation and experience, so that we might use interdisciplinary and multi-level classrooms as an occasion to listen closely to our primary sources and the ways they challenge institutional and disciplinary categories. In doing so, we will expand the possibilities of primary source work for our next generation of researchers, and welcome their fresh insights to conversations in higher education and cultural institutions alike.

Notes

[1] While this may be in part a result of changing disciplinary training, or lack of institutional resources on both sides, it may also be in part because of the high expectations of professionalization in graduate programs today—that graduate students should already have these abilities, even though the literature on undergraduate primary source literacy strongly indicates that these skills are not taught at that level evenly or consistently.

[2] While special collections, archives, libraries, and even museums all constitute different repositories for artifacts and records that we might consider primary sources, I refer specifically to library contexts in this article, and use the term “special collections” as the most capacious and broadly-applicable term, since they often contain a mixture of rare books, literary manuscripts, and archives as part of research collections curated and designated for primary source work.

[3] During this article, at times I may foreground the first person “I” to indicate aspects of my professional and personal experience that shaped this program as well as my critical response to it, including my status as a doctoral candidate at the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), during planning; as a literary manuscripts specialist at the New York Public Library’s Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature; and as an editor of Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative, a publishing collective for primary source materials. It is my hope that this specificity will make clear the veritable alchemy that constitutes primary source pedagogy, as well as encourage others to reflect on their unique capacity to create similar projects with their own strengths and intentions.

[4] While the special collections of the New York Public Library have a longstanding relationship with CUNY students, and for decades have partnered with professors and staff to facilitate class visits, no formal structure exists to consistently and annually link the Graduate Center, CUNY, and the New York Public Library on the specific topic of primary source literacy and practices. Given the size and scope of both of these institutions, as well as the variety of student and instructor needs from special collections class visits, this is of course understandable. At the same time, the Seminar’s collaborative design, with two sessions that span the Graduate Center Library and the manuscript and print-based special collections of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, fills a gap in graduate and professional-level instruction on primary source research methods across these institutions, and considers how a sustainable model of engagement might look in future iterations.

[5] Additional teaching was provided by Tal Nadan, Meredith Mann, and Emilie Yardley-Hodges from the New York Public Library.

[6] This additional support took the form of a digital resource with a list of New York Public Library and Graduate Center resources, individual reference consultations via email or in person, and an invitation to join an open-ended working group titled “Primary Source,” with the Center for the Humanities.

[7] This Seminar is not a sole effort within the New York Public Library or the Graduate Center Library to consider special collections pedagogy; numerous staff are engaged with this question, across divisions and disciplines, at any given time. Rather, I intend to examine the practical and theoretical considerations of this particular event while making visible as much as possible the labor contributed by staff members from both institutions.

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APPENDIX A: Advance reading list for Fall 2017 first session of Collaborative Research Seminar.

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Rusert, Britt. 2015. “Disappointment in the Archives of Black Freedom.” Social Text 33:4: 19-33. https://doi.org/10.1215/01642472-3315874

About the Author

Mary Catherine Kinniburgh works at the New York Public Library, where she specializes in literary manuscripts and exhibitions. She earned her doctorate from the Graduate Center, CUNY, where her dissertation focused on libraries belonging to poets like Charles Olson and Diane di Prima in postwar America. She has served as a Digital Fellow at CUNY and Columbia Libraries, a Teaching Fellow at Brooklyn College, and is currently an editor for Lost & Found: The CUNY Poetics Document Initiative.

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