Archives and students: get them engaged but, please, leave the lattes outside

This week archivist Abbi Brown talks about her efforts to get students engaged with archives in meaningful ways while still following all of those rules. Thanks, Abbi!

Normally this space is full of students studying. Abbi works to get them to see the space as more than a study room.

If outreach librarians have a daunting task in making libraries a welcoming and accessible space, student outreach in the archives can be one of the Twelve Labors of Hercules.  Think about it: inviting students into the archives means explaining that they can’t check anything out, they have to use gloves with photographs, and they may not be able to photocopy or scan the fragile document they’re examining.  Worst of all?  They have to leave their potato chips and lattes at the door.

Why am I doing this?  It’s a lot easier to work with researchers who are already familiar with the quirks of archival research.  I see two main reasons to do student outreach: education and preservation of student records.

  •  Education.  Helping students interact with primary sources encourages them to build critical thinking skills and become independent researchers.  They have to interpret raw material and construct their own arguments, rather than quoting the opinion of another author.  Reaching out to students lets them know that we’re here to help.  We want to provide resources and instruction for them to be successful in primary source research.
  • Preservation of student records.  It’s my job to collect records that document the life of Carthage, and student records are an endangered species.  Because of the high turn-over of student cabinets and the tendency of undergraduate organizations to have less than ideal record keeping habits, the danger of losing records of historical value is pretty high.  Building trust with student clubs and organizations is the key to having their records deposited in the archives for future generations.

As a part-time archivist in a college archives, student outreach is all about making strategic use of my resources.  I’m only in the beginning stages of outreach, but here are some of the ideas that have worked for me:

    • Hire student workers.  If they have work-study, it’s a win-win situation.  Not only is it helpful to have an extra set of hands, but they can offer great ideas, act as ambassadors to the student body, and provide a student’s point of view on the archives.
    • Harness the power of social media—it’s free or dirt cheap, and that’s where the students are.  I created a Facebook page for our archives, and I make a point to post an interesting tidbit or fun photograph at least once a week.  To encourage students to engage with our page, I recently ran a photo caption contest.  I had my student workers help me choose a selection of great photographs from our collections and we ran the contest on Facebook.  Students had to “like” our page and submit captions for the chance to win an iTunes gift card (and what student doesn’t want an iTunes gift card?)
    • Contact academic departments and see how the archives can support their current projects and classes.  This winter we had an once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, because the Theatre Department was putting on a play about Abraham Lincoln and his connection with Carthage.  Not only did I get the chance to provide copies of college records from the 1850s showing Abraham Lincoln on our Board of Trustees, but after approaching the director, I hosted the playwright and actors for an educational session in the archives and built an archives exhibit for the show. In order to take the exhibit beyond the limited interaction of the auditorium lobby, I inserted QR codes into the display.  Students could use the QR codes to pull up background information, YouTube videos of the performers, and even John Wilkes Booth’s Facebook page.

I’ve only touched on a few of the ways archives can reach out to students, so if you have any ideas, please share!

Abigail Brown is the Archives and Records Coordinator at Carthage College.  Email her at,  unless you’re writing to complain.  In that case, email

One response to “Archives and students: get them engaged but, please, leave the lattes outside

  1. Pingback: New student activities: kick the new year in the butt! | the outreach librarian·

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