Spring 2003

Volume 22 Number 3


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Archival Resources in the Classroom - An Overview
Michael Gourlie, Archives Advisor

While archivists know that their holdings can be used by a variety of audiences, individual archival institutions often lack the resources to develop the tools necessary to make the materials accessible and useful to a particular audience. In its application to the Canadian Council of Archives, the Archives Society of Alberta is addressing this issue by proposing a project to use archival sources in online learning tools aimed at school children in the K-12 sector. In undertaking such a project, it is worthwhile to see how other websites have incorporated archival resources into their online presence and whether they meet the needs of archivists, students and teachers. Looking at two such websites provides insight into issues that the ASA should consider in creating its own learning tools.

One website is the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration's Digital Classroom www.archives.gov/digital_classroom. While the site draws upon the resources of possibly one of the largest archival institutions in the world, it includes certain elements essential for any site attempting to incorporate archival resources in a classroom setting. In addition to a lesson introducing students to documents and archives, the Digital Classroom includes lesson plans covering American history topics from the 1750s to the 1970s based on specific documents, such as patents, photographs, land pre-emption applications, legislation, and petitions. Each lesson plan includes an introductory essay to provide some background to the document, references to the relevant educational standards that the particular lesson meets, digitized documents with references to their record group, and a list of activities to undertake during the lesson. There is even a link to a "document analysis worksheet" that allows students to examine individual records in depth.

Elements of the Digital Classroom site do prompt some questions. Who is the author of the background essays, and is there any bias in the presentation of the facts? In some cases, why are only selected pages of documents digitized rather than the entire document? Are the digitized materials "one-off" documents that do not require much explanation, or do other documents not available online support or detract from the positions laid out in the lesson plan? In spite of these issues, the overall product is impressive and contains elements that the ASA could emulate in its own project.

In contrast to the broad coverage of the Digital Classroom, the website Who Killed William Robinson? http://web.uvic.ca/history-robinson focuses on a specific event (a murder in British Columbia in the 1860s), but manages to expand its coverage to address a variety of other issues. The website provides a description of the murder and includes transcribed newspapers, government correspondence and trial documents contemporary to the event. A section entitled "historical contexts" gives an overview of society at that time through archival sources as well as materials created specifically for the site. All the transcribed material is centralized in an "archives" section that also explains the nature and role of archival institutions and why certain documents were created. A "cast of characters" contains biographies, often quite detailed, of the people involved in the case. An "interpretations" section contains theories from various observers and historians regarding their solution to the mystery, and this section initially is available only to teachers to allow the students time to come to their own conclusions. A teacher's guide (available upon request), a reviews and recommendations component linking to reviews of the site, a feedback mechanism, and a section crediting all the people involved in the creation of this resource round out the site's content.

By providing a variety of primary and secondary documents originating from different sources, Who Killed William Robinson? provides a more in-depth exploration of issues than the Digital Classroom. While its content and presentation may be suited to a more experienced audience, the Robinson site creates a more accurate sense of working with archival material, assessing sources, and examining a particular event from a variety of historical and contemporary perspectives. The use of transcriptions rather than digitized copies of the original archival documents does detract from the authentic feel of the original event and the experience of conducting research. Who Killed William Robinson also lacks a statement connecting its educational content to a particular curriculum standard. If teachers are uncertain whether a particular online resource can be used in their classroom, the usefulness of the site is somewhat diminished.

While most archivists will be pleased by this use of archival sources, as well as the citations that keep the documents in context, one question that remains is the effectiveness of these sites from the perspective of teachers and students. While these two sites do not provide any online sources evaluating the success of their site, other sites have conducted studies that could provide a basis for evaluating the ASA's project. To ensure the project's effectiveness, the ASA will partner with key stakeholders to create an online resource that promotes archival resources accurately and addresses curriculum standards necessary for the site to be useful. By taking successful elements of other sites, addressing perceived flaws, and working closely with the site's ultimate users, the ASA will ensure that archival resources are successfully integrated into the classroom, ultimately increasing the audience for and raising the profile of the archival community.