Sarah Shippy Copeland
History Lab: Combining Service Learning, Research Methods, and Digital Archives
Instructor Commentary by Sarah Shippy Copeland
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Cleveland State Community College (CSCC), a small two-year college in southeast Tennessee, offers freshman and sophomore students a service-learning course as an introduction to research in archives. In this course, the History Laboratory students assist local cultural heritage institutions with digitizing collections and publishing them on the web. As of spring 2012, students have completed service-learning hours at the Cleveland Bradley County Public Library History Branch, the Museum Center at 5ive Points, and the Polk County Historical and Genealogical Society Library. These local archives and museums benefit from increased access to their collections, while CSCC history students gain experience with handling and researching primary sources.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Several developments led the Department of History and the Library to collaborate on the creation of the History Laboratory. The college’s administrators recently encouraged instructors of every discipline, including the humanities, to develop content-appropriate service-learning courses to promote student engagement. Moreover, the history curriculum at CSCC emphasizes the central role of primary sources in historical analysis, even in research projects assigned in introductory courses. A history instructor, Bryan Reed, realized that his students could access a rich learning experience if they contributed to a regional digitization project, the Southeast Tennessee Digital Archive. Thus, Reed and I developed a service-learning history course where students assist local archives, museums, and historical societies that lack staff to digitize their collections.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As the primary instructor, I oversee the classroom content of the course, which is informed by my training in both history and information science (MA, History; MS, Information Science). The historian’s need to understand primary sources, where they are found and how they are curated, shapes the goal of the course. Information science, including the philosophy of archives, digitization, and creating metadata, shapes the course activities. Reed serves as the local history expert, assisting students with research in obscure local publications.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Because the History Laboratory’s target audience is freshman and sophomore history majors, the course is very basic. The primary goal is to expose students to the cultural heritage institution’s role as curator of artifacts. At the archive I introduce students to the archivist, collections, finding aids, and additional tools for discovering information about a collection. After this introduction to cultural heritage institutions, we discuss the historian’s role as interpreter of artifacts. This discussion is often the students’ initiation to the “historian’s craft”: assembling a narrative, interpreting facts, and determining significance.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 The learning outcomes for the History Laboratory are similarly basic. By the end of the course, we expect students to demonstrate appropriate handling of unique historical materials, to create digital surrogates of assigned primary documents, to research these primary documents using relevant resources (in paper and electronic formats), and to organize and present their findings in the Southeast Tennessee Digital Archive (SETDA) using a simple content management system (CONTENTdm). The last learning outcome, creating and entering metadata, may seem out of place in a history course. Nevertheless, we felt it was essential for students to complete this step; it gives them the opportunity to digest their research, consider their audience, and share their findings. This process empowers students to take on the role of expert.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 After two pilot semesters, the History Laboratory is now an officially sanctioned course in the history curriculum at Cleveland State Community College. Former students have indicated that the course was a valuable first introduction to archives and their importance to historical research. In the future, we look forward to requiring this service-learning experience for all CSCC history majors. Although we believe that the History Laboratory offers an unparalleled initiation to archival research, we look forward to hearing whether our graduates’ experiences remain relevant as they continue their academic careers.