What About the Archives

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Teachers College, Columbia University
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Center on History and Education

Teachers College, Columbia University

What About the Archives?

No doubt about it, primary source documents are a staple of classroom history instruction on the elementary and secondary levels.  In support of Common Core Standards, teachers have become increasingly skilled at using a single source to develop and refine students’ analytical thinking skills.  Libraries and archival repositories are offering a hand by launching more and more digitization projects that make it easier for teachers to locate a document and incorporate it into classroom history practice.  We applaud these efforts, and in line with our definition of historical literacy aim to take the use of primary sources in classroom history instruction, one step further.

With that in mind, we raise the question:  What about the archives?  What about the broader context in which the stand-alone primary source document is located?  How might we reach beyond the focus on a single document to the archival collection of which it is a part to enrich students’ appreciation and understanding of history?  While research visits by students to archival repositories are often prohibitive from a practical and logistical standpoint, introducing the archives as concept into classroom history education is not.  

Simple questions related to primary source documents, exploring what we call “circles of context,” lead to rich insights about the significance of the greater archival whole of which the stand-alone document is a part.  Questions about context anchor a single document in domains of meaning that enable students to better understand how primary sources are generated, collected, and preserved, and how the politics of accessibility and the very absence of the archival record weigh on how historical narratives are constructed and interpreted.  

In short, we believe that history education becomes more exciting and meaningful to students and reaches toward the goal of historical literacy when it is approached in this way, from the bottom up.  That is to say, when history is taught with attention to how the archives are central to the work of the historian and how the fund of archival resources available for research stands in direct relationship to what we know about the past, we uncover an added dimension of the discipline for students.

Our interest in the archives as a core part of history instruction is documented in the video, Teaching in the Archives: The Fundamentals of Historical Literacy, produced with our partner, The Center for Teaching and Learning at Columbia University.  We have also been working with the New York City Department of Education, Department of Social Studies Education and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture and History, The New York Public Library, incorporating instructional strategies about the archives in professional development for the city’s high school (American and global) history teachers.  

Stay tuned to learn more.  We think we are on to something very interesting.