Introducing Our Students to Local History & the Archives

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One of my favorite assignments to do with my US Women’s History students offers them a hands-on experience with primary sources in a research library. I started doing this assignment after attending a professional conference where an historical society director lamented that college history professors very rarely engage their students with local historical organizations. I returned to my institution determined to find a way for my students to learn more about the work of our state’s largest historical organization, the Rhode Island Historical Society.

To start I contacted the RIHS director who connected myself and a colleague with the organization’s educational outreach coordinator. Together the three of us  brainstormed ways that CCRI students could explore the RIHS collections. We needed to be realistic: our US Women’s History course is a second-year history course that many students take to fill an elective and not because they want to be historians. Professionally I recognized that I could not allow my students to invade the RIHS research room without a clear plan of action. In spite of all the questions I had about whether this idea could work, I was guided by my belief that the research skills that we gain as students of history can be utilized in nearly any occupation. 

With the thoughtful guidance of the RIHS staff we developed a list of topics that would enable students to interact with primary sources in a short period of time. Our goal was that each student would spend approximately two-hours at the RIHS research library (ie, one visit). RIHS sent a representative to meet with our students in the classroom on the day I assigned the project and she was able to introduce them to the policies and procedures of their visit (ie, use of pencils, the need for a picture identification, etc). Here is the assignment we developed: Click here to read the assignment.

Every local historical institution is unique. At RIHS there exists a large collection of women’s diaries that suited the needs of this assignment. Wherever you may be teaching, however, there is likely an organization holding a collection of sources that could provide an introduction to library-based primary source research -- maps, letters, newspapers, speeches, etc. The archivist will be able to determine what makes the most sense. While students were initially resistant to the logistics of doing research at an off-campus location, the RIHS is easily reached via public transportation and was, therefore, accessible to all students. Our students were not charged a fee for use of the archives so there were no financial impediments to their conducting research. These are important factors to consider when identifying a partner organization.

As much as I enjoyed reading the students’ final papers, even more exciting (and useful) was their engaged discussion of the process. Sending my students off campus to do archival research opened their eyes to the work that historians do in a way that in-class coverage of textbook content cannot. If you’re looking for an adventure in research with your students, give this assignment a try!

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About the Author
Suzanne K. McCormack, PhD, is Professor of History at the Community College of Rhode Island where she teaches US History, Black History and Women's History. She received her BA from Wheaton College (Massachusetts), and her MA and PhD from Boston College. She is currently at work on a study of the treatment of women with mental illness in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century Massachusetts and Rhode Island.