Archival Literacy and the Role of Universities in Archival Instruction

By Krista McCracken

Photo comic by Rebecca Goldman CC-BY-NC

Photo comic by Rebecca Goldman CC-BY-NC

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

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.

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13 thoughts on “Archival Literacy and the Role of Universities in Archival Instruction

  1. Tom Peace

    Great post Krista! I really hope that your essay will spark a broader conversation about the integration of archives into the classroom. I think you’re probably right that at the undergraduate level training in archives is minimal and idiosyncratic. That said, there are additional components that I think need to be part of the discussion.

    First, archival training is probably more common in smaller programs than larger ones. Here at Huron, for example, archival work is an important part of both our Canadian and American survey courses (second year), a required third year course (HIST 3801), and some fourth year courses. Having taught in both large and small history programs, it strikes me as much easier to make archival skills a key part of programs where class sizes allow for more directed interactions between faculty and students.

    Second, I suspect one of the challenges of integrating archival research skills into history programs is the broad geographic and temporal expertise of a program’s faculty. It is relatively easy to engage my students with local archives because their mandate and the learning outcomes for my courses (Canadian history) align tightly. I also have research relationships with many local librarians and archivists that make these projects manageable and relatively easy to mount. Although certainly not impossible, I suspect that it is much harder for our colleagues studying Latin American or Asian history to work with local archives (though digital archives and methods also needs to be taught).

    Finally, I want to give a shout out to Pat Townsend and Wendy Robicheau at Acadia (’ve both spent considerable time thinking about these issues and run in-class sessions relatively frequently for Acadia’s students. When I was at Acadia, I had the good fortune of working on a few projects with Wendy and quickly discovered that at Acadia at least, these types of in-class sessions are run not just for history students but also classes in nutrition, business and community development. (Also, Wendy just started a third-year course called “Unlocking the Archival Record,” that addresses many of the themes explored in this post)

    Anyways, this is a really important topic for those of us teaching in the undergraduate classroom. Hopefully my morning musings make sense!


  2. Krista McCracken

    Hi Tom,
    Thanks for your comments – I agree there are definitely added complexities that I didn’t address in my post and I hope others will join in the conversation. And thank you for point out the great work going on at Acadia!

    I would agree that class size and range of historical topics have a huge role here. It is much easier to introduce a class of 30 students to an archive than it is a class of 100. And though creating assignments which require students to use a local archive is a great idea – many archives might not have the staff to accommodate larger classes.

    I think your point about using digital archives and building student knowledge around how to effectively do research in digital archives is important. Learning how to critically engage with digital sources and how to manage the vast amount of archival material available online is an important skill that I think falls under the broader category of archival literacy. Similarly, understanding the challenges faced by archivists in managing and presenting born digital content is a key piece in approaching content online.

    Thanks again for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Jane

    Thanks for the post Krista! Here at Cape Breton University – the Department of History and Culture essentially use the archive as their ‘lab’ for many courses. We also have a very successful Beaton Institute Internship Program that hosts 2-4 students annually. These students complete archival assignments with supervision divided between the archive and faculty. Time and resources do impact the level of assignment preparation and engagement between faculty and students-but when it does work, it’s incredibly rewarding for all parties. I’ve been trying to expand our archival information literacy work based on the program at Acadia-as Tom mentions above. I would like to partner with our Education Department-like Wendy did-to expand the type of integration and improve assignment development. We also offer the standard orientations “this is what archives do, offer” etc, on a regular basis and across disciplines. Appreciate you bringing attention to this topic.

  4. Ian Milligan

    Cool stuff, Krista!

    FWIW (for both spreadsheet updating and information), I teach our Introduction to Historical Thinking required course at the University of Waterloo (HIST 250), and we do quite a bit of archival work: a site visit at the archives in small groups (12 at a time or so), an archival document bellringer, and then one of their three essays is a close reading of an archival document housed at our local collection. I don’t know if you’d capture that by a reading of their ours or the special collections archives.

    They wrote a blog post about our visit:

    I think this is one of the most important parts of our methods class, so thanks for writing this!

  5. Krista McCracken

    Thanks Ian – that’s great to hear (and is something I definitely didn’t glean through reading the course description). I updated the spreadsheet accordingly.

    In case anyone’s interested I’ve updated the information about Laurentian, McMaster, and the University of Winnipeg’s archival instruction services.

  6. Sara

    Krista, this is awesome! I teach the Intro to Archival Science course at Lakehead University, and nearly all of my students are in the last semester of their degree, so the instruction aspects really only benefit those who are going on to graduate school.

    I’m starting full-time at Lakehead’s Archives soon, and setting up instruction for students earlier in their programs is very much on my list. I’m sure I’ll be referring back to this post & the comments!

  7. Tim O'Grady

    Hi Krista. Great post!

    I work at the City of Edmonton Archives, and we often work in conjunction with local post-secondary institutions. Our most successful projects are partnerships where the archives and the professor create the assignment together.

    Our least successful projects are those that are imposed on the archives (sometimes without our knowledge). When this happens the students don’t learn very much and we can end up spending more time than we would like shepherding the students through the process. It isn’t a great experience for anyone!

    For anyone who is considering involving archives in their class – good for you. I recommend reaching out to a local institution and collaborating with them. Archivists are always eager to talk about their work and dispel myths around the profession. They can also help guide your assignments to make the best use of their available resources, and to plan to ensure they have the resources (time and space) to accommodate your students.

  8. Krista McCracken

    Sara: Thanks for sharing about Lakehead’s program. I think you make an excellent point about the value of introducing students to archival skills early in their undergraduate studies.

    Tim: It’s great to hear about the successful and the more challenging collaborations. I agree, surprising an archives by creating an assignment without consulting them doesn’t go well for anyone and can often result in frustration on both sides. Having discussions early in the planning stages with all parties involved can help meditate a lot of resource problems and often the archives might have ideas of what collections and resources would be best suited for a class. Communication is key in this type of partnership.

  9. deantiquate

    Hi Krista: This was a great post and a really useful spreadsheet!

    I can speak to my experience working in the academic archives at York University. We offer customized sessions in the archives for undergraduate and graduate courses that range in depth and detail. The most popular are general “show-and-tell” sessions where we present material that relates to a syllabus and provide a basic intro to archival research. These tend to take on the flavour of celebratory class trips at the end of term. Another popular format is to provide one or two sessions in the archives focused on primary source materials that are to be used for a specific assignment that the course director has developed in collaboration with the archives.

    I’ve had classes as large as 250 students (coming in over several weeks for identical tutorials) to seminars of three PhD students. I know of at least two cases where the archives has hosted a course for a full term. One which did it “for the atmosphere” and another so that they could draw on our holdings for every lecture.

    The range of the instruction we provide tends to get obscured by the fact that these arrangements are made one-on-one between the archives and course directors or TAs. We haven’t had much luck getting archival instruction embedded into the syllabus (hard to pursue with a small staff), but things are changing, especially with York’s institutional emphasis on experiential learning and the Department of History’s new Public History programming.

    One of the biggest surprises I’ve had working in an academic archives is how much our holdings are used by departments that we wouldn’t typically associate with archival research: geography and fine arts come to mind.

    We also tend to be a bit spoiled because we’re neighbours with the Archives of Ontario. We’ve been able to collaborate with course directors with some 2 for 1 sessions where students get a taste of what it’s like to research with us and then they walk over to the AO where an archivist there gives a tour and instructional session on how to access materials from a government institution.

    I’m curious if in the course of your research you came across any courses/workshops that dealt specifically with helping students navigate copyright, ATIP requests and other bureaucratic hurdles related to archival research. It’s an area where I’ve notice a gap in support services. Did you encounter any models that other institutions could emulate?

  10. Krista McCracken

    Thanks for sharing your experience at York – the fact that such large classes are accommodated I think is a significant point. And I think you’re not alone in making arrangements on a case-by-case basis, it seems if this more often than not this is how things develop and which classes use the archive can change from year to year depending on the faculty involved.

    We’ve also had success at Algoma with Fine Arts integrating archives into their programming – a few years ago a special topics class called “Archival Impulses” was offered that focused on the connection of archives and conceptions of memory to artistic practice.

    Your question about copyright, ATIP and other bureaucratic challenges to archival research is an important one. I agree that’s a gap that’s often not discussed when introducing students to archives or research methods. In terms of copyright instruction specifically a lot of university libraries offer sessions/resources around this topic – but it rarely covers issues specific to archives. I wonder if this is an area we could do a better job of collaborating internally within universities.

    So far I haven’t come across any great examples of where copyright, ATIP, etc has been integrated into coursework or archival instruction. But, I’m doing some more research around archival instruction for a conference presentation in March and if do discover any examples of this type of instruction I’ll share them.

  11. Ross Fair

    A very interesting post, Krista.

    For Ryerson, you’ve added our second-year historiography course (HIS 400 Reading, Writing, and Using History), but have omitted my third-year archival research course, HIS 505 Locating the Past: Archival Research. Both are required, core courses for our History BA.

    In my archival research course, I essentially try to teach our students that to become an excellent historical researcher, you need to understand how archives operate, how archival collections are organized, and how archivists think. Then, I try to teach them that to be an excellent historical writer, you need to understand what the archival record is and is not telling you.

    This year (the second time the course has been offered) I arranged visits to the Archives of Ontario, the City of Toronto Archives, and the Ryerson University Archives. As most students have never set foot into an archives, these tours accomplished the basic feat of getting them through the front door. I was also able to organize some hands-on exercises with staff at the Ryerson Archives.

    I bring guest speakers into my class to provide students with an understanding of the archives as an institution, the archival profession, and the variety of archival collections available. I’ve had representatives from the Ontario Jewish Archives, the Canadian Lesbian and Gay Archives, and the Library and Archives of Sick Children’s Hospital speak to my students. Combined with the visits to archives, I can get my class to compare the collections of provincial and municipal archives; two different institutional archives; and we can discuss the multiple meanings of ‘community’ archives.

    With two years’ experience teaching this course, I find it results in three student groupings (the class is mostly History majors, though students from other disciplines are able to take the course for credit):
    1. The few who have already done some archival research (genealogy for example) who wanted to learn more archival research skills.
    2. A sizeable portion who had never given much thought to archival research before, who soon realized how much work is involved, and who then rolled up their sleeves and dug into the archival records to complete their research assignment. This group includes those who left the course motivated to do more archival research or consider archival studies at the MA level, and those who appreciated the hard work archival research requires, but who aren’t sure they ever want/need to do it again.
    3. A frustrating minority of students who refused to accept (for whatever reason) that a undergraduate course should require any more work than the night-before, minimal-research-into-secondary-sources essay.

    Overall, this is a fun class to teach. But I have to say that among the dozen or so undergraduate courses that I have prepped and taught, this one was by far the most difficult and time consuming. Primarily, the near-complete lack of practical readings regarding the historians’ use of archives makes it difficult to put together any sort of reading package. In the end, I ended up using a lot of material from my own twenty-year career as a Public Historian to walk students through a variety of archival research scenarios. The fact that Archival Studies is usually taught at a graduate level has also resulted in scholarship that is so theoretically dense that, again, it was difficult to come up with a set of readings suitable to third-year students who are just being initiated into the field of study. It’s not my intention to train archivists, nor is it my intention to have them drill deep into the theory of record descriptions.

    Overall, it seems to me that a significant gap needs to be bridged between the literatures of History and Archival Science with some practical, useful guides and discussion material aimed at the undergraduate crowd, who don’t yet know if they want to be a historian or an archivist – or either!

  12. Krista McCracken

    Hi Ross,

    Thank you for your comment and for sharing your experience with teaching the Archival Research course. This sounds like a great course that includes a lot of unique learning experiences for students. I’ve updated the spreadsheet to reflect the information you shared.

    Your point regarding the gap between the archival science and history based literature is definitely a valid one and is something I’m sure many teaching at the undergraduate level have faced. Personally, I’ve often drawn on case study style articles published in the Public Historian journal that focus on archival research. These articles are often written from a historian’s perspective or jointly by archivists and historians.

    I’ve also used the blog series by the Peel Art Gallery, Museum, and Archives (PAMA) to introduce students to how archives are organized and the role of the archivist. ( It’s not a scholarly article but does make the basics of archival research accessible to undergraduate students and is a good starting point for discussion.

    I’d welcome suggestions from others of appropriate reading for the undergraduate level.

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