Virtual Americana: The Novice in the American Memory Archives

By Edward J. Gallagher
Published on 04/06/2004

The purpose of American Memory-based "Virtual Americana" was to put, in Randy Bass’s choice phrase, “the novice in the archives.” But how could we make such an experience intellectually profitable for students and not just aimless surfing? Teachers who want to effectively use what has been rightly called “the most outstanding single site for primary documents in American history and culture” must face this question.

The path to an answer that co-teachers Paul Galante, John Lennon, Stephen Tompkins, Robert Wilson, Michael Yellin, and I took first involved developing a series of what Bass calls “open but guided” assignments that also could not readily be completed using traditional class materials. Each unit guide, then, settled on a final assignment characterized by a key verb embodying the core archival activity in his unit.

In "Virtual Americana" our students would explore, test, construct, and reflect – in what seemed to be logical pedagogical order from lower to higher level activities.

In The Chinese in California the students began by simply exploring the multiple causes of an event, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and presenting their findings informally in a web log (blog). Next, in the Haymarket Affair, the students test the published claims of two expert historians – who worked from basically the same sources found in American Memory – in formal analytical essays drawing on evidence they discovered in the archive.

In the next two units the students became “historians” themselves, constructing their own narratives out of the raw material in the archives – a radio show in the unit
Pearl Harbor and an audio anthology of African American folk music. Finally, the Florida WPA investigation asked them to be “meta-historians” reflecting on the lens through which they selected evidence and constructed their interpretations – and to use that insight to return to the archive and form a better research question. Thus, profoundly marking the difference between this course and our traditional courses, we asked students to end with their own questions, not our answers.

Secondly, our path involved scaffolding the archival experience to ensure that our novices were able to complete the
assignments . To start, several guides provided some orientation preliminary to entering the archive. The Chinese in California , for instance, provides a brief overview essay, and the Haymarket Affair provides a key excerpt from an essay by Hayden White.

Next, each guide outlined a similar process that begins with encouraging wide, unstructured exploration of the archive, gradually narrows in focus, climaxes in a discussion board post, and then opens up again to reading and responding to the ideas of others. The discussion board was a crucial site for debriefing, and it was truly student space, the guides generally keeping a low profile there.

The most interesting general feature of the discussion board in this archival context was to encourage each individual to act as the eyes of the entire community while working in these spaces too big for one person to master. There was a lot of “watching out for each other” in all the units. One of the students said in
feedback that this was “like sending out a group of people on an archaeological dig. Your chances of finding lots of valuable stuff are greater than if you just went by yourself. We all found neat things, we all shared, and we all came out knowing more than when we came in.”

So, how did the students respond to the total immersion archival experience in American Memory? Did they learn anything new? Yes, especially about the Haymarket Affair and Chinese racism, which several found “brand new” and quite shocking episodes in our history. For example, one student felt that his or her “eyes were opened” to the true roots of prejudice in America.

Did the archives add anything to the subjects they already knew? Many gained, especially through the audio documents, a sense of reality and a new relationship to the past. One student commented that, “hearing those voices first-hand made the learning experience so much more REAL to me,” a sentiment echoed in the remark, “I look at history now through the eyes of the people who lived it.” Another marveled:
"I think a misconception I had about people through history is that I could never relate to them – they weren’t like me. But they are. They are actual people, and not just names in a book. This course helped put faces to names, emotions to names, and a connection to people I’ve never met. A whole new history."

This course made the events become “real in a way that a textbook or a teacher lecture could never have done.”

Did they feel differently about history in general as a result of the archive experience? Yes, they felt its constructed nature. Students reflected that:
• “I have become more skeptical of history after working in this class based on the subjectivity of many historians;”
• “.. . . depending on who writes, it can make it different;”
• “I now know that I should check in more than one place for information;”
• “[the course] provided for me an awareness of how individualized these histories were;” and
• “I don’t think a student who has completed this course can now accept any one version of a historical event.”

Finally, how did these "Virtual Americana" students sum up working with the American Memory archives? As a “fresh breath of air;” “invaluable;” and “vivid.” It offered them an opportunity to “understand history in a totally different way.” They appreciated the difference between the “minimal way of thinking” represented in most textbooks and “poking around in an unlimited vat of resources.”

Perhaps, however, this succinct chant deserves the last word regarding the sense of transformation and empowerment we found in those who have been properly American Memory'd : “I am scholar – hear me roar! Primary materials rule!”

send article to a friend]
[print full article]
[return to front page]

Ruins of abandoned cigar factory. Loss of this industry helped make Key West a ghost town.
The Library of Congress | American Memory | The Learning Page | Contact us