Event: Archive Learning and Higher Education – Alex Healey

I had been really looking forward to our January event on Archive Learning for Higher Education. While I’ve enjoyed attending all of our events since becoming ALES Chair in 2018, this was the one which was most relevant to my day job as Project Archivist at Newcastle University.

The day turned out to be really enjoyable. One of the speakers commented on how rare it was to get so many archivists from HE institutions in the same room, and it was a fantastic opportunity to hear what other people were up to, how they’d faced challenges common to the sector (eg larger cohort sizes, reaching non-traditional subject areas and raising your profile within a large institution). It was also great to hear the perspectives of some academics who joined us on the day.

All of the presentations have been made available for download on the ALES resource pages – I recommend taking a look if you couldn’t make it!

A few key points and themes of the day:

  • Use of archival sources in HE teaching can contribute to a varied curriculum that accommodates diverse learning styles
  • Student engagement with archive sources in a supportive environment provides and develops crucial research skills, regardless of the subject matter of the collection
  • Visiting archive services with students offers other benefits, including confidence building and enhancing student wellbeing
  • Networks of contacts, advocates and allies within HE institutions are hugely valuable to archive services
  • Archivists, not just Archives, have a lot to offer to the HE curriculum

Jacqueline Winston-Silk and Georgina Orgill from University of the Arts London kicked off the day by considering the object-based learning potential of archival sources, reflecting on two case studies of modules in which they participated. They found that the sensory ‘hands on’ nature of OBL  had a real impact on students, and also offered a great opportunity to engage ESOL students with their collections.

Jacqueline Winston-Silk, Curator, Archives & Special Collections Centre, and Georgina Orgill, Assistant Manager, ASCC & Stanley Kubrick Archivist, University of the Arts London

Dr Katrina Legg from the Richard Burton Archives followed, discussing her experience of building networks across Swansea University. She stressed the importance of identifying people who will act as your advocates. Katrina observed that we in the archive sector have a tendency to sell ourselves short, but that as information professionals we are experts, and have lots to offer as specialists and educators. She also noted that when trying to forge links and networks you will encounter closed doors but not to be disheartened – keep trying!

After tea and biscuits Alison Harvey from Cardiff University Special Collections and Archives reflected on the role of archivists in relation to teaching and Universities, and the challenge of making your department visible within a huge institution. Alison suggested that Archivists can learn a lot from guidance given to academics on how to make their work more visible, and that Twitter has great value in building a public profile for both yourself and your institution. Things that seem everyday to an archivist are often fascinating to others – always carry your camera phone and snap anything interesting, including people enjoying a teaching session (with permission!) (Alison practices what she preaches and you can follow her on Twitter – @noirchivist).

Dayna Miller of Kingston University Archives and Special Collections followed and presented a case study of a project working with BA Graphic Design students. She reflected on the students’ increased confidence, their enthusiasm for the ‘hands on’ nature of archive work, and the imagination they brought to materials, resulting in an incredibly varied exhibition. Dayna also acknowledged the huge amount of work that goes into such a collaboration with academic staff, and that placing boundaries on certain aspects such as copying and exhibition installation can reduce this.

After lunch we welcomed Dr Lucinda Matthews-Jones, a Senior Lecturer in History from Liverpool John Moores University, representing History UK. Lucinda suggested that archives can have a vital role to play in the breaking down of traditional power structures of the disseminated information, allowing students to engage in participatory knowledge making. She encouraged us to think about how we badge collaborative modules, and that focussing on the skills that the module will deliver may attract more students than a subject history. She also encouraged archive services to be more honest about the payback they would need in order to participate –archive services should not be afraid to request reimbursement for their time and resources.

Lucinda was followed by Aisling Keane, who presented a case study from the National University of Ireland Galway. After noticing that Undergraduates were under represented in their reading room statistics staff at the James Hardiman Library formulated a module intended to develop archive skills and understanding. Aisling was candid about the difficulties encountered, including attendance and pitching the content to the right level. However, discussion with history academics showed that issues were part of wider trends. The module will be repeated, with revised content and with 10% of marks allocated to attendance to try and resolve some of the issues.

Following a final tea break, Vicky Gringod and Kevin Linch of West Yorkshire Archive Service (WYAS) and the University of Leeds respectively, spoke about the development of the collaborative ‘Archive Intelligence’ module. Kevin had conducted some research into student study skills and found that only 1 in 10 felt 100% prepared to use an archive. 56% of history undergraduates Kevin surveyed had never entered an archive, and that this trend didn’t change between stage 1 and stage 3. Many of the queries students had about working with archives was practical – how to find, access and use them. Kevin suggested that assessing students on skills that were not overtly delivered as part of their course privileges students who acquire these skills independently. After discussions with WYAS the two organisations signed a memorandum of understanding laying out each other’s commitments, including a 5 year minimum commitment to deliver this module. Delivery of the module increased student confidence, gave them key skills for future archive research and also produced transcriptions of documents for use by WYAS.

The final session of the day was delivered by Ruth Cammies and Gabi Kent from the Open University (OU). They presented on the project Time to Think, creation of an oral history collection exploring the impact of OU study on inmates in British and Irish prisons between 1972 and 2000, in relation to the conflict in Ireland. The resource will be used in teaching, to encourage critical thinking, including around education and learning itself. The resource demonstrates the value of learning as a tool for societal change, not just employability skills. The talk led to a discussion around the role of Universities in relation to prison education, and what skills teaching with archives can bring that extend beyond employability.

Overall I felt inspired coming away to hear how others in the Higher Education Sector are fulfilling their services’ obligations to support the teaching activities of their institutions, across varied collections and institutions, and engaging with different subject areas.

Alex Healey, Chairman of the ALES



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