We (Leigh McDonald and Chris Kemp) were given the opportunity to be involved in an undergraduate class last semester: The Historian’s Workshop, taught by Dr. Nicole Sackley. The course immersed students in the worlds of archives, digital libraries, museums and public history. The students were each placed in the roles of researcher and expert while working with one of Boatwright’s largely unprocessed archival collections, the Congressional Papers of Watkins Moorman Abbitt. Each of the eleven students was assigned a box of archival materials from the collection to work with, and Lynda Kachurek (Head of Rare Books and Special Collections) instructed them on archival processing methods. The students read and examined all of the documents in “their box,” and selected representative materials to describe and display in an online exhibit.
That’s where Discovery, Technology and Publishing came in. We digitized materials and launched an Omeka site to present them. We also presented three metadata workshops to the students, which focused on how to examine a document’s contents, effectively describe it, and upload it into Omeka. Since the students were the experts on their particular materials, there would be no one better equipped to provide in-depth descriptions of each item. Leigh and Chris randomly selected a document already digitized from those chosen by the students, worked through the Dublin Core metadata fields as examples, prepped our materials and headed into the workshops feeling prepared for anything. That randomly selected document turned out to be a much better lesson for the students and for us than we had imagined.
The document above is the one we chose. It seems pretty simple on the surface – a piece of correspondence between a constituent and his congressman regarding the work of the Agricultural Extension Service agents in his district – and we suggested describing it accordingly. An attached report described a rat control campaign in the Hampton Roads area and included statistics on the rat population in the U.S. Therefore, the first Library of Congress Subject Heading we suggested was, of course, “Rats”.
During the workshop, however, Professor Sackley asked the student why he chose this particular document and his response was enlightening. Because he had gained some perspective on Congressman Abbitt and his tenure from studying the documents in his box, he read the documents as a rather elegant but subtle plea for the need for African-American workers in his division, not just an informational letter about pest control. The line, “We are extremely limited in staff and cannot be ‘all things to all people,’” was the hint. Based on this, it was then possible to complete the metadata description more accurately by adding terms such as: African American agricultural extension workers and Virginia Polytechnic Institute’s Agricultural Extension Service. We would not necessarily have picked up on the full significance of the document without the student’s input, which illustrates the analytical skills the students brought to the table when selecting documents from the collection. We are sure that similar conversations could have occurred regarding many other documents in the collection.
Given the subject matter of this archival collection and the course readings, the students expected to find much on the topic of massive resistance to school integration in Virginia, but they discovered so much more. Students uncovered numerous interesting documents, including an exchange between Abbitt and then-Texas senator Lyndon Johnston, a letter from a high school senior regarding the statehood of Hawaii, and a pamphlet listing the names of supposed communists in Hollywood, California. All of these findings brought to life the people and the historical period, and gave the students a perspective on the times that would have been absent without access to the primary sources.
The work the students did last fall was impressive on many levels, but it only scratched the surface of what the Abbitt Papers contain. Abbitt was a congressman from 1948-1973, and his archival collection is made up of 285 boxes of material. Fortunately, Professor Sackley is going to teach the course once more in the fall of 2015. We in DTP are looking forward to getting back into the classroom with students once again, and learning right along with them.
See the fruits of the students’ labor at the course’s dedicated Omeka site, which is publicly available but still “in the workshop”: http://historiansworkshop.richmond.edu
Hear directly from the students at the Historian’s Workshop blog: http://blog.richmond.edu/historiansworkshop/
And read a feature news story about the course on the UR Website: http://news.richmond.edu/features/kp4/article/-/12356/the-historians-workshop-students-learn-about-archiving-and-digital-collections-in-hands-on-history-course.html
Written by Chris Kemp and Leigh McDonald