Treasures from the Archives

Note: PALS is kicking off its 2017-2018 year with this introduction to working with archives and archivists by guest writer Cheylon Woods. Cheylon is the head archivist at the Ernest Gaines Center and has worked with other archives in the past. Here she gives us some insight and pointers for bring the archives into our course planning and our students to the archives. Also see librarian Kelli Hansen’s post from last year on Collaborating with Your Special Collections Librarian.

In the last five years, I have noticed the word “archive” being used…a lot. From archives on DIY blogs to individuals discussing their “personal archives” in their homes, a general concept of an “archive” seems to be catching on, and I couldn’t be happier…kinda… I am an archivist, and personally I find archives completely fascinating! I love the fact that people seem to be learning what an archive is, but I find myself wondering if they really understand what archives are and what they offer, or do they think it is just a term to apply to where they keep their “old stuff” (spoiler, it’s the latter). Personally, I am of the mindset that some conversation is better than no conversation, so I am happy to take the idea that an archive is simply a place for “old stuff” and expand on that, because archives are so much more. Luckily, I am in a perfect position (being an archivist and all) to use my experience and collection to advocate for the support and use of archives.

South Dakota State Archives
South Dakota State Historical Society Archives
A brief background

First, I think I should start by introducing myself and the archive in which I work. My name is Cheylon Woods, and I am the Head of the Ernest J. Gaines Center located at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. I have a background in History, Political Science (B.A.), Heritage Resources (M.A.), and Library Science (MLIS). Needless to say, I love “old stuff” and what that “old stuff” tells us about how we have always interacted with others during any period of human existence.  I like reading about it, I like talking about it, and, most importantly, I like preserving it.  The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive. The center was opened in 2010, and its mission is “to foster research and scholarship on the life and works of Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, to archive, house, preserve, protect and utilize the ‘Collection of Ernest J. Gaines,’ and to make the collection available to scholars in perpetuity.”

While the above mission was written specifically for the Ernest J. Gaines Center, at its heart is the purpose of all archives. The spaces where “old stuff” is stored are treasure troves of information, and potential projects, just waiting to be used. Archives and archivists have a unique calling to ensure that history is not forgotten. Such a statement sounds so lofty, “to ensure that history is not forgotten.” But that is the easiest way to explain it, and not explain it at the same time. I could drill down and get really detailed about what exactly archivists and archives do, but what is more important to understand is WHY we do what we do. As a society, when we think of “historic” documents, we set the bar really high, but archives and archivists have a much broader approach.

When people think about historical records they normally think about “iconic” records, such as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, or government records, like census reports and draft records, but archivists also see your grandmother’s letters or cookbook as historic. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a perfect example of the broad definition of historic when discussing archives. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is a manuscript archive, and the majority of our collection is the multiple drafts of the published works written by Dr. Ernest J. Gaines. We do not have any records about the plantation where he was raised, or community in which he grew up—things that are easy to understand as historic—but we have the letters written to him by students and inmates about how his work affected them. We have his research that influenced his books, journals that he helped edit, gifts given to him by other writers and researchers.

While, on the surface, it may not seem like this information has historical value, looking at it through the greater lens of the Black Arts Movement and the social movements happening during the decades Gaines chooses to write about provides a researcher with connections and shows how something as small as A lesson Before Dying  can have a lasting effect on a reader.I n the Gaines Center Archives, there are a series of letters from incarcerated men about the Jefferson. Jefferson is the character in the book A Lesson Before Dying who is sentenced to die for a crime he did not commit. in some of the correspondence, the writers expressed  how the evolution of Jefferson reminded them about their own humanity as they served their time in some de-humanizing spaces.

The records created by people,  be it a grandmother in Detroit during the 1940s or a world renowned author like Dr. Ernest J. Gaines, are important and they provide an interesting context to the dates and places memorized in class. Everything that happens in “history” happens to the people who happen to occupy that particular intersection of time and space, and the records they create give those events context. Without context, it just feels like “timey whimy wibbly wobbly” stuff;  archives, archivists, and the records they preserve help untangle history by saving relatable experiences.  Prior to completing my MLIS, I was am IMLS (Institute of Museum and Library Science) Fellow at the Alabama Department of Archives and History.  During my internship I worked with birth records that date back to the turn of the century, an African American family that dated back to emancipation, and civil rights flyers. All of these documents put faces in the spaces where Alabama History took place. Reading letters and wills discussing how property (including slaves) were to be divided after death, or looking at the original charter for a university or state college illustrate decisions that affect present day society.

How to use archives and archivists in the classroom

Outside of history, using archives and working with archivists can seem daunting, if not impossible. This is furthest from the truth. Archives are spaces that were designed to preserve the human footprint in history, and human interaction has an effect on every aspect of society, be it the arts or STEM.

In all of his work, Dr. Gaines’ writes about technology and mechanizing the agricultural spaces. If a STEM student or educator was so inclined, one could look at the Dr. Gaines’s manuscripts and identify how the inclusion of tractors affected the communities who traditionally farmed  “by hand”, or consider the concept of rotating crops and how it not only had benefits for the soil, but also created a type of calendar for the people who lived in the quarters.  Records of oil drilling and infrastructure in a municipal archive or university archive could be used to evaluate the effects of certain projects have on communities, and how future innovation can benefit or harm a community of interest.

If you are in literature, you can assign a project that asks your students to use their archive to write a fictional story based on someone in one of your college’s or community archive’s collections. Special Archives (like mine) can also be used beyond the scope of their collection mission. One of the more interesting artifacts housed in the Ernest J. Gaines Center is script (a type of currency) from Riverlake Plantation, which is where Dr. Ernest J. Gaines was raised. I use the script to explain how people were paid in the quarters. This currency could not be used in any other location except Riverlake Plantation, and, during class tours,  is a great example of the hardships people faced under the tenancy and sharecropping systems. The Ernest J. Gaines Center is mostly used by the English Department, but his stories could easily be incorporated in other fields, like Education, History, or Social Services. His short story “A Long Day In November”,and the associated manuscripts, have been used in education classes to explain why new teachers should be empathetic to their students. The characters Dr. Gaines creates and how they evolve can be studied (without going through IRB) for a number of types of papers or used as teaching tools. If you work at a university, you can set up visits with your archivist to discuss collections that relate to your course, and if you work in K-12, local archives are great field trips, and most have some sort of educational outreach programming in their repertoire.  The best thing about archives and archivists is that we can be used, and we want to be used, in almost any way that suits you. If you are not sure, don’t be afraid to ask your local archivist, I am sure they will be excited to be invited into your class.

In conclusion

Honestly, archives are really cool places. We are more than a place for “old stuff” or people who “organize old stuff” ( we do that too). We are people and places that can help you create more robust assignments. We understand the very complex nature of humans and pour over boxes and boxes of the things they created, and are currently creating, documenting their lives. We are places where no one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten, and no movement, fandom, organization, or entity is forgotten. We are places where people matter because we exist because of people. People create records, even if they are on a corporate level, and those records speak volumes about the society that produced them.

Archives can be your best resource if you choose to use them. Not only are they full of cool things, a treasure trove one may say, but they are full of cool people who can help you become an expert on all of their cool things. All those boxes are filled with lessons, and they are just waiting for you to pair them with all of your syllabi, and one day (hopefully) they will be filled with your records as well.

Contributor Bio

professional.photograph.cheylon.woods (1).jpgCheylon Woods, Assistant Professor and Archivist/Head of Ernest J. Gaines Center, received her MLIS from LSU. After completion of her MA in Heritage Resources from Northwestern State University, she was awarded an IMLS (Institute of Museum & Library Studies) fellowship through HistoryMarkers (oral history archive based out of Chicago) where she was assigned to work as an Archivist at the Alabama State Department of Archives and History. She actively worked with communities and prominent figures in the region to fill in information gaps related to African American history in the state of Alabama. Cheylon also received a dual BA degree in History and Political Science from Louisiana Tech University. She is a member of Phi Alpha Theta, Society of American Archivists, Louisiana Library Association, and Association for the Study of African American Life and History. She has presented at annual meetings for Society of American Archivists and worked on numerous public programs for the Alabama Department of Archives and History specializing in preservation and displaying historical documents and artifacts.


Collaborating with Your Special Collections Librarian

PALS Note: PALS is ecstatic to feature guest blogger Kelli Hansen. Hansen offers us her insights as a special collections librarian at the University of Missouri. This post provides instructors with tips and examples of assignments for incorporating your institution’s library collections into your courses. Interested in doing some collaborative teaching? Read on to find best practices for collaborating with your librarians.


Teaching faculty and special collections librarians have at least one goal in common: all of us want students to become effective researchers and critical thinkers.  Libraries in general, and special collections in particular, are laboratories where students can experiment as we help them move toward that goal.  Teaching with special collections fosters inquiry-based and active learning models of instruction, and it also allows you to engage multiple learning styles at once. Sometimes, however, it can be difficult to envision how special collections materials might fit into your course.  Teaching in special collections does take some planning, but it can easily become one of the highlights of your semester.

As Greg Specter has previously pointed out on this blog, the first step is to talk to your librarian or archivist.  We are eager to talk to you, especially about teaching, and we love to get primary source materials into the hands of people who can use and appreciate them.  This post is meant to give you some insight into one librarian’s perspective on teaching and get you started on the process of collaborating with your local LIS professionals.

How Librarians Approach Teaching

When librarians talk about teaching, we often use the term information literacy to refer to students’ knowledge of research skills and techniques. There is no consensus (yet) on how to teach information literacy in archives and special collections (but there is a group of very smart people working on it right now). The literature on teaching in special collections contains a group of similar approaches and key concepts, and I’m outlining a few of the ones that have been helpful to me.

Elizabeth Yakel and Deborah Torres started the conversation about information literacy in special collections and archives in 2003 with the article “AI: Archival Intelligence and User Expertise.” In it, they identify three areas of expertise users need in order to research competently in archives: subject knowledge, artifactual literacy (the ability to read a primary source for both content and physical clues), and archival intelligence (the ability to navigate the environment of the reading room and use finding aids and other search tools). In early 2016, Peter Carini took the work of Yakel and Torres a step further with a set of standards that build on each other, reminiscent of the ways that each category of Bloom’s Taxonomy builds on the last. The standards are to “(1) know, (2) interpret, (3) evaluate, (4) use, (5) access, and (6) follow ethical principles” as applied to using primary sources and the institutions that house them.

Also in early 2016, the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) officially adopted the Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, which re-imagined a previous set of standards as a set of six frames, or general, interconnected concepts with accompanying research practices and mindsets. Educators can use the frames as a flexible way attaching core ideas within their own subject areas to practices that are critical for building research skills. The entire Framework, including practices for each frame, is available on the ACRL website.

Depending on their areas of subject expertise, a librarian or archivist may focus their teaching on archival intelligence, artifactual literacy, and the Framework to provide students with a set of best practices for finding resources and accessing, handling, and interpreting materials.

Frame your objectives

I’m bringing up these concepts because they can be useimg_4234d to define what you want your students to take away from the class visit, beyond an inspiring experience or an awareness that special collections exist. Collaborating with your librarian to come up with a learning objective or two can be the most important part of the class session, because it will inform the materials your librarian or archivist selects and the way those materials are introduced to your students.

Questions for you to discuss with your librarian include:

      • How will your visit to special collections fit with your objectives for the course overall?
      • What type of research would you like your students to do with the materials?
      • When they leave the library, what new knowledge do you want them to have?

I also highly recommend Julie Golia and Robin Katz’s explanation of crafting effective learning objectiveson the website. What is most important is that you have a clear sense of the purpose for your visit, and that you and your librarian are working together toward that purpose.

What to do during your visit

Once you have your learning objectives for the session, work with your librarian to develop an assignment or activity that relates to those goals. In my experience, the most effective assignments either help students to develop artifactual literacy, or they build on archival intelligence to situate primary source material within the landscape of research resources.  As I mentioned above, these are the areas in which your librarian is an expert, so work with them to combine their expertise with yours.

Plan in-class activities. Document, image, or artifact analysis done in small groups is the staple of instruction in special collections, and these types of activities can be an excellent way to introduce students to materials in class. The National Archives offers worksheets that can easily be adapted for use in the college classroom.  If you’re looking for other types of activities, a great resource is Using Primary Sources: Hands-On Instructional Exercises, which contains activities that can be used in a wide variety of class settings.

Encourage creativity. Assignments don’t have to mean papers. Small exhibitions, videos, creative nonfiction, artworks, dramatic readings, and many other forms of creative expression can come out of a visit to special collections. At the library where I work, art students study artists’ books in preparation for making their own, theater students consult a playwright’s papers for insights on their latest production, and English students curate small exhibitions in the reading room display cases. Your library may even have programs in place to foster creative work inspired by the archives.  At Amherst College, for example, the library offers creative fellowships for undergraduates to do research in special collections.

Make their work visible. Ryan Cordell states this better than I can. “Students love to build projects that make use of their institution’s collections and contribute to their institutions’ legacy, and these often public projects can energize them to work that much harder, as they can create materials with a chance of life beyond the classroom itself.”

Ask your librarian if your students can publish their work on the library’s blog or social medimg_5272ia presences, or in the institutional repository, donor newsletter, or other library publication. Can they create a digital exhibition or online subject guide? Is there a performance aspect they could show off? Can they share their project with their friends and family? Give their scholarship some social currency and watch them take pride in their work.

Let them give back. I first encountered the idea of student research as service when working with an instructor on a class in which her students transcribed seventeenth- and eighteenth-century broadsides in the digital library to correct problems with OCR. The instructor explained the project to the students as a form of service learning; many of these broadsides were very scarce, and the students knew they were creating a scholarly resource not available elsewhere.  Work that promotes the greater good can be a motivating factor for students, and this type of work benefits the library as well.

Integrate; don’t isolate. Special collections and archives are not curiosity cabinets; they contain resources that exist alongside many other sources of information. Collaborating with a subject librarian and a special collections librarian can help integrate these materials into students’ research.

One of the more effective class sessions I’ve participated in took place outside of special collections. Working together, the instructor, English literature librarian, and I identified a number of printed materials from special collections that were duplicated in online databases. I brought the special collections materials to the library’s computer lab classroom and supervised their use, while the English librarian led an activity in which the students worked in groups and compared the originals to digital surrogates. The students quickly identified the different affordances of each format, and by the end of the session, they clearly articulated various research situations in which they might need to consult one or the other.

Talk to your librarians. We may be using different terminologies, but faculty and LIS professionals are thinking and writing about the same things: how to teach students the processes of research, how to get them asking questions of special collections materials, and how to integrate those materials into the larger research environment. Let’s make sure we’re talking to each other, too, and not limiting these conversations to the boundaries of our own professions. Talk to your librarians about the challenges you face in teaching and the ways your librarians could support you. Talk to your colleagues about where work in special collections falls most naturally into the curriculum. And talk to me about what you think about this post.  I’d be happy to hear from you.

More resources

If you are interested in learning more about teaching in special collections, the first place you should look is This site offers a thorough and extremely helpful resource for faculty, librarians, and archivists looking for help getting started with teaching in special collections and archives. Resources include articles from teaching faculty, archivists, and librarians, as well as exercises you can adapt to use in your own classroom.

Also take a look at the Teaching with Primary Sources Bibliography, maintained on Zotero by the Society of American Archivists. It contains over one hundred articles, book chapters, websites, and case studies that focus on best practices for teaching and undergraduate research in special collections and archives.

Finally, several special collections librarians have put together guides for instructors working with local collections.


Contributor Bio:

Hansen.jpg Kelli Hansen is a librarian in the Special Collections and Rare Books Department at the University of Missouri Libraries, where she teaches and does reference, outreach, and web development.  Her research interests center on the history of graphic narrative, and she is the curator of Beyond Words: Visual Narrative from the Block Book to the Graphic Novel, a traveling exhibition which begins national tour in 2017.  She approaches teaching with hands-on, active learning methods that help students develop research skills through work with special collections materials.  Contact her on Twitter at @BiblioKelli.