For students who are just learning how to wield digital literacy and assess sources in a critical fashion, digital archives provide a ready source of analysis. As a MA student at Oklahoma State University, I taught a section of First Year Writing which included the archive as a site of digital literacy. In introducing students to academic research, exploring digital archives can provide students with a host of critical thinking skills. After identifying a list of digital archives, I drew on these archives to model the research process, to demonstrate how to assess sources, and to invite critical thought regarding the curation of any given archive.
The Archive As Unit
In my unit on the digital archive, I assembled a list of learning objectives for students as we addressed the archive as a site of digital literacy. Optimally, students would be able to define what an archive is, to describe the process of archival research, to identify and analyze the purpose, stance, exigency, and scope of a selected archive, and to use a finding aid in order to locate items within a given archive.
For the unit's assignment, students chose a particular archive to study, and prepared a presentation which considered the following questions:
- Who created this archive? What institutions, groups of people, or other scholars helped to assemble it?
- What is featured in this archive?
- How are materials collected from the archive? Where are the physical materials housed?
- What voices are present in this archive?
- Why was this archive created?
- What is the stated purpose of the archive? Is there a mission statement or other statement of purpose located on the website?
- How is this archive organized? Is there a tagging system? Is the system easy to navigate?
To model this process, I projected the websites of three different archives onto an overhead projector: the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and Archives website, the online exhibit Selling Smoke: Tobacco Advertising and Anti-Smoking Campaigns, and the online exhibit Women Working, 1800-1930. I then asked students to point out navigational features, objects of interests, and statements of purpose.
Students latched onto mission statements located in prominent places in the archive. They also sought out featured material on archival homepages as a means of explaining representative materials housed in a digital archive. An activity I had planned to introduce students to institutional finding aids proved to be difficult to execute: instead of relying on the finding aid, students preferred to use any Boolean search systems. In this way, I was able to revamp my lesson plan: I focused on introducing students to basic Boolean operators to refine their searches, utilizing terms such as "AND", "OR" and "NOT" to link search subjects together or to exclude items from their searches.
In assessing the Martin Luther King Jr. Library and Archives website (now indefinitely offline), students were immediately interested in assessing the Federal Bureau of Intelligence file on King. Many of the students were not aware that King had been under surveillance by the FBI, which led our class to a discussion regarding the ways in which the civil rights movement is often sanitized in official memory today. Students explained that their high school textbooks often simplified the civil rights movement down to a short timeline, without providing much contextual information. This particular archive served as a reference point for our class in considering how the archive can provide us with primary sources in studying the history of the civil rights movement.
Revisiting the Unit
Students often found the sheer volume of documents present in the digital archive to be overwhelming. As a result, they became distracted or confused. Now, as a Ph.D. student in English at Northeastern University, I've revisited and revised my unit on the digital archive.
In teaching the digital archive, I ask students to choose from a short list of digital archives, identify any subcollections (if applicable), and identify a navigating system, whether through Boolean search operators or a tagging system. Within that archive, I ask students to identify one item, describe its contents, identify its tagging system or other means of organization, and consider any metadata as a means of curation. Building on these means of engaging with the archive, students then prepare a statement regarding their own argument for why they believe this item was chosen to be preserved in the archive.
Digital archives can provide students in the humanities with a host of critical explorations. We are all used to relying on archives as a site of research materials for students. When introduced to digital archives as curated, as intentionally organized, and arranged in accordance with a methodology, students hone digital literacy and critical thinking- and leave with a better understanding of what a digital archive is and does.
Galen Bunting is a third-year PhD candidate in English at Northeastern University, and a 2020-2021 HASTAC scholar. He has contributed to the Women Writers Project, worked as an editorial assistant for Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, and currently teaches at Northeastern University. He is currently working on his dissertation, in which he analyzes shell-shock as a gendered diagnosis and its effects on literature in the aftermath of the First World War.