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Students and the Wonders of Archives

April 13, 2011

Happy Wednesday, dear readers! I hope your day is going well. I can’t believe we are halfway through another week. When did time get so wibbley, wobbly? Anyway, today I just want to discuss brieflythe wonders of archives, students, and why I love physical records in the archives.

While I am a big fan of technology (and shiny stuff in general, if I’m being truthful), I probably love physical archival records even more than digital technologies. I know I’m very old school about this, but bear with me while I explain. I love digital archives, I love having finding aids online, and I love all the work archivists are doing to make their archives more accessible and user-friendly. All of this makes my own work and research as both an archivist and an historian easier. But there is nothing like actually seeing the records in person to make me *squee* with joy.

I won’t try to describe my rather unprofessional happy dance when we found a signed, manuscript copy of Henley’s famous poem, “Invictus” (yes, the one used in the movie). Or my reaction to finding a beautifully preserved illuminated manuscript in the archives. Or my joy at receiving a small grant to do preservation work on a collection of letters and other family documents that date from the late 1700s to the 1900s from a local immigrant family. There is something beautiful and engaging about documents. If you don’t believe me, check out James M. O’Toole’s amazing article, The Symbolic Significance of Archives. While digital surrogates are wonderful for preliminary research, there is nothing like seeing the original documents to make me (and I think many others) fall in love with our work as archivists, researchers, historians, teachers, and students all over again.

And these physical records also help me when I’m teaching, which brings me to my second point of this blog post. I could show students digital surrogates of archival records along with the databases for their secondary research, but that’s not what gets them to engage during the instruction sessions–that would be the actual documents. I taught two history seminar classes last week, which was a bunch of fun (and a lot of work, I have to give props to Collin for helping set up the very temperamental laptops for the sessions). The students were wonderful throughout the sessions, but really came alive when I started showing examples of old college scrapbooks, photos from Homecoming Parades in the 1960s, watercolor paintings from the mid-1800s, and especially the amazing 3D images produced by an old stereoscope.

These students, some of whom will become historians, were excited about the documents in ways that I just don’t think they’d get excited about if I had only shown them images on the screen. While it is fantastic, and does open up access, to have the Book of Kells available online, it’s a completely different experience to see it in person.

Using these records also allowed me to discuss archival research in general and the proper behavior in archives. It also generated my absolute favorite question of the academic year: “How do we keep from pissing off the archivist?” This came after I told the students that the archivist is their best friend for finding obscure records and collections they might not have discovered on their own as often the archivist is the only one who really understands what is held in the archives.

So, I just wanted to say I love archives. I love teaching about the archives and archival research and I love sharing archives with others. I’ll end this love letter to archives now, but if you haven’t said hi to the archivist at your institution, make a point to do it this week. You never know when you might need some archival materials for your own research or a library exhibit.

To end, another fun Simon’s Cat video, “Snow Business”:

Have a great rest of your day and I’ll be back on Friday with some tech and library news. Oh, and Happy National Library Week! Allons-y!

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