By Krista McCracken
Over the past few years one of the many hats I’ve worn at Algoma University has involved providing introduction to archives sessions and educational programming around our archival holdings. This work often leaves me thinking about archival literacy and the skills historians need to be successful at archival research.
Archival research is a vital part of historical research however many history programs do not offer critical training in archives and most history majors tend to learn by trial and error how to navigate archival repositories. History classes may include a visit to the archive but these orientation sessions are often superficial and do not focus on the hands on development of research skills.
Looking back in my undergrad, archives were a bit of nebulous place that I didn’t know much about. I had the opportunity in the third year of my undergraduate program to visit a local archives, become acquainted with the staff, and do a project that focused on the archive. However even that project was fairly artificial – it involved visiting the archive and using reading room resources but didn’t include requesting archival materials or an explanation of how to do so. It was a good exposure to an archive but it felt very much along the lines of ‘show and tell’ and I was still left with many questions around access and how to most efficiently approach archival research.
It wasn’t until I volunteered with a museum that included an archive that I learned more about how archives actually worked. Later during my MA in public history there was an optional Understanding Archives course and one of the core public history class projects involved undertaking research in the university archives.
A pair of recent American Archivist articles, “Archival Literacy Competencies for Undergraduate History Majors” and “Archival Literacy for History Students: What Do Students Need to Know About Primary Source Materials” speak to the question of archival instruction and outreach at a university level. Weiner, Morris, and Mykytiuk argue that there is a need for archival literacy, the teaching of archival research skills that can be applied across archival institutions, an understanding of archival principles and access, and understanding the nature and use of archival based evidence.
So what is the state of education around archival literacy at universities in Canada? I undertook an informal examination of the history departments at English language Canadian universities to see which universities might be providing archival research instruction at the undergraduate and graduate level. I also looked at which university archives websites provide information about instruction and education programming offered by the archives.
Archival research skills at the undergraduate level are sometimes encompassed in historical methods, historical practices, or ‘historian’s craft’ courses. At the graduate level these skills may be included in a research methods course or thesis seminar. Where possible I looked at course descriptions to see if archives were mentioned and if primary source research skills were part of the course.
At the undergraduate level most Canadian universities offer a methods or practice course. This is often a required or recommended course for history majors. But the degree to which these courses include introduction to archival research skills varies greatly – with many being more focused on historiography and honing writing skills. Formal exposure to archives is often piecemeal and varies greatly between institutions.
University archives are ideally situated to be leaders in the instruction of sessions on archival literacy. But as I went through all the English language university archives websites in Canada it was a bit disheartening to see that only 15 of 56 university archives appeared to provide instruction services of some kind. Unlike library instruction, which has become a mainstay of undergraduate education, archival instruction still varies greatly between institutions. Granted, it may be possible that instruction information wasn’t included on the website – in which case if anyone has more information please feel free to contribute.
Developing effective instruction services in archives requires resources that many archives simply do not have. It requires dedicated staff time, resources, and physical instruction space. There is also sometimes a disconnect between offering instruction services and uptake by faculty and university staff of this service. Making it available is great but there also needs to be a concerted effort to get faculty on board to use instruction services and to develop resources tailored to courses.
There is also a definite need for this instruction to expand beyond cursory sessions of “this is what an archive is and this is some of the material we hold.” Working with faculty to develop assignments which use archival materials and teach students the basics of archival research is crucial to reinforcing concepts of archival literacy. Additionally, given the increasing prevalence of digitized archival holdings and born digital archival material, instruction around archival research needs to include the introduction best practices for digital archival research.
I think post-secondary history programs could do a better job of training students in archival research skills and providing them with a foundation in archival literacy. However, they should not be expected to do this work alone and university archives need to be supportive places that can provide students with an introduction to archival research.
Krista McCracken is an Archives Supervisor at Algoma University’s Wishart A. Library and Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre. She is a co-editor at activehistory.ca
Note on my Research Process:
I looked at all of the English Language public universities across Canada that offered either a three year History B.A. or a four year Honours B.A. in History. I similarly considered graduate programs in History. I used department websites to look at course listings for each institution. The details column in the chart includes any information I was able to glean on the content of the courses and if they were required or elective courses.
I also looked at University Archives websites to determine if they offered any form of instructional services. This might include class visits, faculty assignment collaboration, or individual student instruction.
To view the spreadsheet summary of archives instruction at universities in Canada click here. If I’ve missed something from your institution please leave a comment and I will update the spreadsheet.