Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Cry Havoc and Loose the 7th-Graders of War!

(Yeah, one person in the entire universe will get why I chose that particular title. Considering there are all of about 6 people who actually read this blog, though, I am not yet terribly worried about an abundance of in-jokes. So it goes.)

Yesterday, the UWM Archives played host to a veritable horde of 7th graders from a local Milwaukee middle school, as a way of helping said horde with their National History Day projects. Let's get this out of the way right now: God I'm old. These kids, with a couple of exceptions, seemed so YOUNG, even though most of them were probably 12 or 13 (which, at the top end, is still almost 13 years younger than me). Don't believe the hype about kids growing up faster these days, because it's a damn dirty lie. I know that as archivists go I am a mere sprout myself, but yikes. Somebody get me my walker.

That said, it was a pleasure to open up the archives to these students, whose behavior ran counter to what I have come to expect from children that age. For the most part, these students came in with interesting and well-fleshed out topics, and they were very attentive regarding the Archives staff's mini-Bibliographic Instruction and respectful of the materials. Our reference archivist was wished a mass "Merry Christmas" (I didn't think kids still did that at that age), and all of my students were very respectful and even thanked me on their way out (I REALLY didn't think kids did that! Though perhaps working in a public library for a time has biased me). It was, overall, a lot less frightening than I thought it was going to be, and makes me think there may yet be hope for the future of humanity. (I reserve final judgment, however, until I see what these kids are like WITHOUT their teacher hovering in the next room.)

Overall, I think it's a great idea to get kids interested in archives this early. Everybody knows what a library is, but I had no idea what an archive was for until COLLEGE, and I didn't seriously consider it as a profession until the second half of that. Getting kids into the archives, or at the very least using archival material, is a great way, from my perspective, of increasing the exposure of both individual archives and the profession as a whole. Early exposure to archives makes it more likely that the student will become interested in the collections, use them or other archives later in life, tell other people about this cool rare stuff tucked away in the library, etc. etc. "Give me a child until the seventh grade, and I will give you the man," as the saying goes. Or something like that.

On the other hand, getting students that young to use archives EFFECTIVELY can be a challenge for archives who are used to serving more seasoned researchers. I had to send a couple of my students back out to the library because they did not have adequate background on their topic to use their collections correctly. More needed guidance on how to do research more efficiently-- he was using a scrapbook and reading all of the articles contained within cover to cover, rather than skimming the headlines for useful articles first. And I think all of the students needed some guidance regarding using the documentation not only for informational value, but also for evidential value (I pointed out to one group, for example, that child labor permits, by the nature of the fields it contained, told the researcher a lot about what educational expectations were at that time, and they were amazed). These issues are not the fault of the students, but merely stem from an understandable lack of experience.

I think there's a lot of opportunity in getting younger researchers into the archives, but I also think that there's a lot more preparation involved on the part of the archives and its archivists. What follows, then, is a brief list of observations and/or suggestions on some ways of doing this effectively, based on my experience here and at other institutions.

1) Familiarize them with primary documents before bringing them to the archives. This is something that the teacher can do either independently or with the help of the archives he intends to have his students use. There are a ton of published primary sources out there, and before the younger researcher steps foot in the archives he/she should have at least a rudimentary grasp of what a primary document is and what it can or can't tell them. (Particularly important to impress upon students at this point is that EVERYBODY has a point of view, and just because it's a primary source doesn't make it gospel truth.) Alternately, individual repositories can pull together documents on a topic of particular interest and make copies of those documents available to the class in question. For example, the Truman Presidential Library has produced a number of Student Research Files, which are artificial collections pulled together by archivists on certain broad topics, such as the decision to drop the atomic bomb or the Marshall Plan, that allow students to "get their hands dirty" and play with the files, but allow the students to skip the often tedious process of combing collections to find relevant documents.

2a) Encourage preliminary research on the part of the students. This, I think, is something we could have done better here. If students have picked their own research topics, as was the case with the students we hosted yesterday, they are going to get a lot more out of the archival documentation if they have the background to contextualize it. During our arrangement with the teacher(s), we as archivists should encourage them to require students to do at least a little library research on their topic before coming to the archives. After all, this is going to be an expectation if students decide to do research in the archives later in their academic careers; why should we encourage bad habits early on?

2b) Provide background information for the provided material. In the cases where archivists pick out specific collections for students to browse for an assignment, it seems similarly incumbent upon us to give the students enough information to use the collections effectively. The finding aid header notes, including scope/content and biographical/administrative history notes, should be the bare minimum for this purpose. Ideally, archivists making specific collections available to students should write a much extended history note for the students to use in determining what in the documents at which they are looking is important.

3) Pick out interesting material ahead of time. In this case, by contrast, our reference archivist did an excellent job. The students we hosted provided us with some general topics, and in almost all cases she was able to find and pull portions of collections that were directly relevant to what they were studying. Eventually, of course, you want to have the students actually learning the entirety of the research process-- the thrill of discovery is often the best part of research, I find-- but the tedium of trudging through the files you don't need is usually the worst part of it. As the idea is to get them hooked on how cool archives can be, it's probably best at this point to eliminate the less-glamorous parts of it.

4) Assist the students with basic research skills. We provided the students with finding aids for their collections in case they wanted to conduct further research on their topics. None of my students had topics in which the UWM archives is particularly deep, but a number of the other archivists' students did, and they were very helpful with showing the students how to use a finding aid, pointing them in the direction of related material, etc. Meanwhile, it is useful to reinforce the tips and tricks that archivists/historians/whoever use to maximize the efficiency of their research, such as skimming, looking for evidential value, selecting pithy and appropriate examples, etc. With luck, the teacher has cooperated on #1 of this list, and this will be review for most students.

4a) Get students in the citing habit. All of the archivists working with the students were (as far as I can tell) extremely conscientious about making sure the collections were cited correctly, which is as it should be. During my term as a teaching assistant for History of Science, by far the most common error students made on their papers was undercitation or incorrect citation of materials. I couldn't do much about it except write little chastising notes on the papers, because you can't fail an entire class! But this is, to my mind, not a matter of malicious intent so much as it is a matter of not knowing when, where, or how to cite properly. If you emphasize the correct manner of citing material-- and especially the correct matter of citing archival material, which has extremely confusing rules by its very nature-- you get them started on the road to having it be second nature by the time they get to college. You're welcome, History TAs of tomorrow.

5) Remember your audience! I definitely used words like "pertinent", "provenance", and "promulgate", to use just the examples that start with P, when briefing the students on the rules of the archives, what it was an archivist did, and how they could best use the collections with which we had provided them. Cut to 10 minutes later, when I happened to glance at the notes of one of my students, which included a reminder to look up the word "pauper." Oops. Fortunately one of the other archivists said later that she did the same thing, so I didn't feel AS bad, but that just drives home the point that you can't talk to 7th graders the same way you talk to academics or undergraduate researchers. It's not a matter of bringing yourself down to their level or a question of oversimplification, but you really have to put in a concerted effort to remember who you're talking to, and then adjust your vocabulary and/or phrasing accordingly.

None of the above, of course, should be taken as gospel, coming as it does from one experience with a class of 7th graders, some work on student research files for the Truman Library, and some reference experience with a surprise class of undergraduates all coming in to do the same assignment. Still, I thought I would share my observations of what could be taken away from the experience in the hopes that someone will find it useful. I, for one, would love to hear other people's experiences with archives use by children and/or young adults. If nothing else, comments on that might be useful to pass back for the next time we have a younger-than-average research group.

I suppose the same principle of getting to 'em while they're young could also apply to records management. Maybe. On the other hand, I kind of doubt 12 and 13 year olds are really going to be all that interested in retention schedules and file management schema...

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