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History Students Gain Valuable Know-How of Archival Research

By Rachel Mueller ’14

Students in HIST 211 – Research Methods in History – are learning a variety of strategies related to historical research, including ways to explore primary sources and evaluate the relevancy of materials they discover.

Abby Trollinger (History) structured her course around one topic, the Great Depression and New Deal, to give her students a hands-on way to practice different research methods. She also recognized that they needed to build a better understanding of archives so she teamed up with librarians in the Research Center to enhance her students’ experience.

Following Breadcrumbs
Trollinger wanted her course design to build the necessary knowledge and confidence in her students as researchers. Each assignment represented a crucial step in completing the final project – a 10-page conference paper or a lesson plan for those studying teacher education.

First, students submitted a proposal outlining their research topic. Then, they were instructed to find a central text or book, that would serve as the go-to resource for locating relevant information. The next step was to create an annotated bibliography.

So when Christine Moeller (Information Literacy & Instruction Librarian) arrived for an instruction session, students were ready to work on their bibliographies and discuss strategies they could use. Moeller helped them analyze and evaluate results and sources for relevancy. They also workshopped in small groups, practicing strategies like looking at subject headings in databases, unraveling citations of related texts and browsing other books in the stacks.

“We wanted to meet them where they were,” says Moeller. “We worked on using pieces of information in one source to help lead to others that may work better. This strategy is not only useful for online catalogs and databases but archives and finding aids, too.”

As her students submitted their bibliographies, Trollinger noted the impact of Moeller’s session.

“It was important for them to practice accessing the best materials, which included finding really good books on their topics, not just a series of related articles, and understanding how to find more information through other means,” says Trollinger. “Their bibliographies are at a much higher level than other classes I have seen because they were forced to look in these sort of new places.”

Plus, this “finding breadcrumbs” approach gave the students a springboard into archives research.

Exploring Archives with Finding Aids
To ensure a well-rounded archives experience, Trollinger coordinated another instruction session in the library with Moeller and Sarah Titus (Project Librarian and Archivist).

Trollinger co-crafted an active-learning session with the librarians to ease her students into using finding aids – guides that detail the materials in an archive. By first introducing them to one archive – the Wisconsin Historical Society (WHS)– and its finding aids, the goal was for the students to not feel overwhelmed.

“I was able to emphasize the difference between a library and an archive, and the types of materials you find in each,” says Titus. “We also talked about how an archive isn’t just a place, but a tool that is integral to doing any sort of historical research.”

As St. Norbert College’s current archivist, Titus brought in a valuable perspective as someone currently in the field, including knowledge of other repositories and the materials available. By learning how to use the WHS archive and its finding aids, they [the students] were prepared for their visit to the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Archives and Area Research Center, which partners with the society to borrow materials regarding the state’s history.

“They talked about what it's like to be an archivist, why archivist’s collect materials in a certain way, and what the information listed for a specific item means,” says Trollinger. “By the end of the class, they [the students] were saying ‘this is so cool and look what I found!’ I’ll always remember how fun that day was.”

One student commented that without the librarians, he would have been blind to the number of options out there.

“Christine and Sarah expanded my horizons so that I can find what I am looking for,” says Nick Schmudlach ’19. “Discovering archival finding aids allowed me to get hands-on with history without having to leave my chair. It was fun to see that people wanted to assist in the spread of history!”

Schmudlach’s research project is on the FWP (Federal Writer’s Project) American Guide Series, which was released for Wisconsin in 1941. Among the letters and book drafts in an archive, he found one letter from a Spooner woman who wanted to contribute by telling the story of the founding of her town.

Trollinger also explains that having Moeller and Titus in class at the same time was eye-opening. Her students saw first-hand how their specialties and knowledge differed from one another.

“I was so glad I was able to introduce them [the students] to the people that can help them with the research they are and will be doing,” says Trollinger. “I wanted them to walk away from this class knowing that, in the future, these are the types of people who can help you get the information you need.”

April 26, 2017 

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