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Archive Taster Sessions: The Story So Far…

Posted Monday, 7th April 2014

Underneath Pusey St, Oxford, a number of exciting stories lurk in the rolling stacks of The Angus Library and Archive. Through developing Archive Taster Sessions, we aim to set loose some of these stories by offering inquisitive students challenging and intriguing activities framed around historical individuals. The focus is on giving students the opportunity to handle real historical items, such as original correspondence, diaries and photographs, and use these to develop their enquiry skills.

The sessions we have been piloting focus on two key figures from our collection:

Dr Ellen Farrer

Dr Ellen Farrer – Pioneer Female Doctor

Students investigate the challenges Dr Ellen Farrer faced as a woman doctor and the first Baptist Medical Missionary to travel to India in 1891. Items include nineteenth-century medical certificates, diaries and a solid gold medal!

Knibb Portrait

Rev. William Knibb – Abolitionist

Students examine Knibb’s involvement in the campaign against slavery and Jamaica’s largest slave rebellion, looking at Knibb’s achievements within the broader context of the abolition movement and Britain’s involvement with the slave trade. Items include early nineteenth-century correspondence, pamphlets, and newspaper articles.

Widening Access

As part of widening access to The Angus, we have been piloting our Archive Taster Sessions through fostering a partnership with IntoUniversity, a charity which ‘supports young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to attain either a university place or another chosen aspiration.’ This partnership is helping us to reach our target audience of Year 10/11 students who have not yet had experience of working in an archive setting.

Our location within an Oxford college also fulfils some of IntoUniversity’s objectives; as part of the day, we arrange to include some encouraging experiences of ‘university life’. Some willing Regent’s Park College students volunteer to assist with the activities, and answer the participants’ questions about attaining a place at university and what to expect from university life.

Overcoming Challenges and Expectations

The crucial point of an Archive Taster Session is to let students handle original material from the library and archive. The very process of coming into contact with original items inspires the students and so we have to think carefully about both letting the students enjoy this experience and preventing any original material getting accidentally damaged.  We overcame any concerns by giving students and visiting staff a 15 minute ‘object handling’ lesson prior to using the archive, all photographs and letters were placed in melinex sheets to protect them and volunteers and staff kept a close eye on the use of the more fragile source materials.

We wanted all the students attending to feel involved and get the most out of using the archive. Students were encouraged to ask questions and supported by volunteers throughout the day. Students were asked to work in pairs to discuss their ideas and feedback to the group. Objects were selected for the accessibility, which meant that every student could find something to say about what they were examining. We also provided transcripts for any letters which were difficult to decipher, but only after students had tried to read them thus demonstrating one of the real challenges faced when using an archive.

At the end of the day, students were given time to ask more questions about The Angus. We also brought out our oldest bound item, the Nuremberg Chronicle, as an exciting item to finish with. Students were encouraged to carefully turn a page in the Nuremberg Chronicle, and were told about older binding methods and the use of woodcut illustrations. This fed into a discussion about the ‘treasures’ of The Angus and left students with the impression that they only saw a small sample of what is held in the library and archive, encouraging them to think about exploring archives further to find more ‘hidden gems’.

Feedback so far…

Having access to the archives and university experts was a privilege and it is days like these that really stand out in the memory of the students we work with.’ – IntoUniversity Education Worker

Students learnt the appropriate manner in which to handle fragile books that are hundreds of years old […] Students gained an understanding and appreciation of the fact that history is a record of real people not just stories in books.’ – IntoUniversity Education Worker

Brilliant to watch minds expand.’ – Teacher

This shows me what the students can really do. [student] is normally very quiet in class, but they got involved today.’ – History Teacher

Fun, educational, and a new experience.’ – GCSE Student

I learnt how to analyse first-hand sources, to […] tell a life of someone I have never learnt about [before].’ – AS Level Student

I’m touching history!’ – GCSE student

 

By Katie Pearce, Learning and Participation Officer

 

If you would like your students to visit The Angus and experience ‘touching history’, please do get in touch:

katie.pearce@regents.ox.ac.uk

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