Student-Built Archival Tools
Instructor Commentary by Moira Hinderer
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Over the last four years, I have worked as a lecturer teaching courses about Baltimore and African American history, and I have also served as the project manager for the Diaspora Pathways Archival Access Project (DPAAP), a partnership between Johns Hopkins University and the Afro-American Newspapers funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. These experiences have shown me that students learn best when they are not simply taught history, but when they also act as historians. Baltimore offers both possibilities and challenges for students doing historical projects. Much of the city’s history remains unwritten, and historical materials are often tucked away in small archives and private homes. Records that are not easily accessible present a special problem for students who are constrained by time and transportation. Both the East Baltimore Oral History Project and the Afro Archives partnership seek to address these challenges by involving students in the process of uncovering, describing, and making accessible historical records, and then encouraging students to use these resources for historical research.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The East Baltimore Oral History Project involves students in the work of preserving the memories of established members of the East Baltimore community. For students, this work addresses a major complaint about life as a Johns Hopkins undergraduate: they are too removed from the life of the city, and they are not encouraged to interact with the city and its inhabitants in meaningful ways. The interviewing process has the additional benefit of making students experts, allowing them to bring a substantive point of view and body of evidence as they critique course readings and engage in class discussions. As interviews are added to the project website, students produce an accessible community history resource that will last well beyond the usual semester-long class project.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 DPAAP also depends heavily on the work of student archival interns, and on the technical skills of the current and former students who form the Project Gado team, led by recent Johns Hopkins University graduate Tom Smith. Archival interns have been involved in every step of uncovering the archives, from labeling boxes and shelves, to entering information into our archival database, to writing essays for our database website. This work has given interns a perspective on African American history usually reserved for history professionals. With materials pertaining to almost every local, national, and international aspect of Black history, interns are often asked to describe the central themes and narratives of this diverse archive. This challenge requires them to address the problem of twentieth-century information overload familiar to both historians and archivists. The Project Gado team offers a different set of solutions to the problem of preserving and making accessible vast amounts of archival materials. The members of Project Gado are involved in innovative work in the digital humanities as they create low-cost options for large-scale digitization. The work of Tom Smith and Project Gado suggests another possibility for hands-on coursework in history, courses that would integrate technical skills and the creation of hardware and software into a rigorous humanities education to prepare students to be twenty-first-century humanities scholars.