Do the Archives Matter in the Digital Age?

I am in the process of finalizing my syllabus for the research seminar that I will be teaching his fall at the American Antiquarian Society. You can read the course description here. I finalized the reading list, which will include the following titles:

The seminar is designed to give students the opportunity to research a topic using the rich collections of the AAS.

This brings me to my question for those of you who have taught research seminars. The AAS has digitized a large number of primary sources relevant to this seminar. One could conceivably research a topic without ever stepping into the reading room. While accessibility to these collections is incredibly helpful, I want to encourage my students to spend as much time as possible in the reading room with the actual sources. As many of you know there is something special about working directly with an artifact that simply cannot be replicated digitally. There is a closeness with the past that is achieved in such a setting.

Unfortunately, I am not quite sure how to impart that experience of closeness or the epistemological relevance of direct interaction. Are there exercises that might help students early on in the class to better appreciate what so many of us who work in the archives understand instinctively? Perhaps comparing the experience of looking at a broadside or letter on the computer and then directly might help. Any ideas or thoughts are much appreciated.

About Kevin Levin

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12 comments add yours

  1. A recent trip to the Eisenhower Presidential library in Abilene, Kansas, as part of a Gilder Lehrman Teacher Seminar on Civil Rights, reminded me why direct access to primary documents is both thrilling and irreplaceable. The documents were kept in folders, the folders in boxes and the boxes were organized chronologically and topically. We were given complete access to these boxes, one at a time, and we were free to thumb through the materials in each folder — telegrams, letters to the President, newspaper clippings, Presidential addresses, etc. What made this experience so special, and very different from a digital search, was not only the material quality of each document (letters written by hand on stationary or typed on onion skin paper, for instance) but also the serendipity of the process. We found things we never would have discovered otherwise. While it is nice to know we can revisit the specific documents digitally and share them with our students, an online search in no way affords the same opportunity or experience. If you give your students time in the reading room, access to some materials, and an open-ended task, you won’t need to convince them of anything! I’m already jealous. Have fun!

    • Hi Lisa,

      I have 12 students from Worcester area colleges who chose to take this course so I suspect they are already curious about the process or already have some experience working in the archives. I am just looking for a few ideas as to how impress upon students the importance of the archives from people who have experience teaching research seminars. Luckily, the staff at the AAS has given this a great deal of thought.

      This promises to be an exciting semester for me.

    • “serendipity ” is an important factor. I have my students go to the library, find a book for their project, go find it on the shelf, and then look at the books shelved nearby to see what else they find that they didn’t see in the catalog. So often they either try to read the book online or just run to the shelves, grab the book off the shelf, then leave without looking at what else is there.

      It’s similar in an archives. I’ve often found something really interesting and unexpected while going through some records. Not everything is online and not everything shows up in the catalog records. And finding something really interesting going through the actual records helps students feel that sense of discovery that makes research fun. There’s few feeling as as satisfying as having a student come hurrying over and say “professor, look at this! Look what I found!’

  2. Until all the contents of an archive are digitized and put on-line, archives will still matter. Granted, working and being with the real thing is a thrill — time, location, and expenses put this out of reach for most researchers.

    • I agree, Jerry. My question has more to do with strategies that teachers have employed to push students to make the extra effort to visit the archives and to work with the actual document even if a digitized version is available.

      • County records might be an avenue to get students to handle and to research original documents, and these tend to not be online: property ownership and transfers, business records, marriage, divorce, and civil and criminal court records, and police reports. Most local libraries have collections of local newspapers too.

        • Thanks, Jerry. My seminar is going to focus in on the themes of emancipation and Union in the North primarily during the war years. Luckily, students have access to an incredible amount of archival materials at the AAS.

  3. Kevin – Thanks for posting the reading list and link to the course description. This is what I was attempting to ask about in my tweet yesterday.

  4. Kevin, this sounds like a great course. As to your specific question about getting students into the archive, maybe it would help if you nudged them to develop a theory as to what materials get digitized, and which remain obscure in their folders and archival boxes.

    As a feminist scholar who teaches women’s & gender history and history of sexuality courses, the answer for me is a no-brainer: it’s about power–who has the skills and cultural capital to read and write and get their materials preseved, and what have been the concerns of professional historians and other scholars over the past 200 years or so. Your course, with its focus on emancipation, should provide ample opportunity for students to compare the digiized vs. the non-digitized archive, and what accounts for the divide. So, I would suggest not just encouraging them to explore the non-digitized archive, but also to think about why it isn’t (yet, perhaps?).

    In my experience, the non-digitized and probably never-to-be-digitized archive is where all the best stories are. Not only will you find the stories and experiences of women, nonwhite people, poor people, etc., but this is also where your students will find the best material for challenging the received narratives they’ve go in their minds already.

  5. What counts as an archive? State, county, and local records as the above comment indicates may very well hold information that will never see the internet. I know that when I was doing my research in upstate NY, I went into the basement of a county building and was there alone most of the time. These were old probate records and the records I looked at had not seen daylight in a century, give or take. I pulled them out of a packet where they had been folded up and the dust on them had been there since they had been placed there. The handwriting was of the people involved. It takes your breath away. I took the various items upstairs to be copied and went back to my motel with that black dust on my fingertips. Is it nice to sit down in a comfortable chair and scroll through my own laptop? Sure, but there is something about the hush of an archive or a library and touching the documents.

    Plus, I don’t have a cat who thinks she should be on my lap in an archive…

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