Developing a Curriculum for Undergraduate Work in the Digital Archives

December 17, 2012 § 1 Comment

I want to highlight a recent journal issue and a seminar from 2011 because each documents ways to engage student in applied digital work through the archives.  I’m addressing them together because I believe that combined, they suggest a model for a sequential undergraduate curriculum for digital archives.  The latest issue of the journal, Archive focuses on “Undergraduates in the Archives“, including a roundtable discussion and case studies of student work in the Archives.  In February 2011, as part of NITLE’s Digital Scholarship Seminar series, Bob Kieft of Occidental organized a seminar, “Digital Scholarship in the Online Archive,” that focused on ways to engage students in digital projects using the digital archives openly available online or available through an institution’s library subscriptions and featured Lauren Coats, Laura McGrane, and Laura Mandell.  The recording for this seminar is freely available online (it opens in Elluminate, now Blackboard Collaborate).

While we are seeing a growing number of examples of undergraduate digital scholarship, it is often an isolated experience in a student’s career.  That is, students might work on one faculty member’s digital project or they might develop a digital thesis but they do not have sustained engagement with digital scholarship throughout their undergraduate experience.  Although digital scholarship seems like important preparation for students who will enter a world where knowledge is built and shared across digital networks, how to integrate it into the curriculum–rather than having it only as a punctuated experience–remains an open challenge.

The seminar, “Digital Scholarship in the Online Archive,” is important because Coates, Mandell, and McGrane describe ways that undergraduates can use existing digital archives.  Too often, instructors are daunted by the prospect of undergraduate digital scholarship because it seems to require substantial digital work from scratch on the part of the instructor and student.  Or it may be that undergraduate digital scholarship only seems possible at those institutions with a digital humanities initiative (like Hamilton College) or digital scholarship lab (like the University of Richmond).  But, in fact, many digital resources are already available either openly online or through library subscriptions (see, for example, the resources aggregated by NINES); building projects on these resources is a significant skill in the digital age, whether we call that “remix,” “mash-up,” or “curation”.  And such work develops  literacy for archival work; as students become familiar with how digital archives are constructed, they are more prepared to do their own archival work.

That’s where the case studies in Archive, Issue 2 come in.  In these cases, students actively contribute to the work of archives in a variety of ways–working with rare books, building archival tools, learning in the archive as lab, mapping archival objects, and digitizing materials.  While students could learn all they need working on this project, having some preparation in earlier classes–like those described for the seminar above–lowers the learning curve and puts them ahead in their work.

I’ve described only two steps in a graduated digital scholarship curriculum, but I think we can build out from there.  Earlier steps might include using digital archives as course materials in place of textbooks or contributing to digital archival projects through crowdsourcing.  Later steps would include collaborative undergraduate research with faculty on digital projects, mentoring younger students in digital work, or individual digital thesis work. As the links above demonstrate, I can find examples of all of these steps, though right now those steps occur at different institutions with different students.  But, if we put them together, we get a vision of what an undergraduate curriculum focused on digital archives or more broadly on digital scholarship–might be.

 

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