Some formerly disorganized and inaccessible historical records of Fort Lewis College will be available to future researchers thanks to the hands-on efforts of students in a new course on Archival Theory & Practice.
The course examines ways of processing, storing, appraising, accessing, preserving, arranging, describing, and referencing archives and records. But rather than just studying those skills, students in the course are engaging in actual, original archival work, inventorying, appraising, categorizing, and organizing documents and records from the now-defunct Fort Lewis College Office of Community Services and turning them into useful historical resources.
“This is not work that has already been performed and they are merely trying to repeat it to learn the process of archive work – they're actually doing it,” says the course's instructor, History professor Michael Martin. “These materials have not been looked at until now, and the resulting work will be beneficial and be put into actual use by archivists, researchers, and the College.”
FLC Cataloger and Records Processor PeeKay Briggs worked with Martin to design the archival project. She is also mentoring and working with the students on their work. “As the College's archivist, I felt a certain responsibility to help our students experience the practical side of the course,” she says. “Since archives are the 'labs' historians work in, we chose to create a lab for these future historians and archives users – and hopefully budding archivists.”
After several sessions that introduced the collection, students teamed up, and each group tackled three boxes of material. Most of the material was paper, but many students had to sort through photographs, maps, posters, slides, and even older digital media like 3 1/2-inch floppy disks.
“The job of selecting material that best represents the office and has the greatest administrative and historical value was no easy task,” says Briggs. “Students went through cycles of great frustration and triumph as they discovered the value in records and what made some documents worth storing permanently.”
After students made decisions about the value of records, they transferred the materials into non-acid archival folders and boxes. Next, they had to consider how to arrange the records for access, creating order out of chaos by developing a “finding aid” — a format for describing collections in archives. Students wrote up general descriptions of their collection, then created a detailed list of folders in their boxes based on the folder name and the contents of folders.
“The end result is a well-organized collection,” says Briggs. “Any future administrative need to access these past projects will be as simple as searching the students’ finding aids, or even doing keyword searches in the Center of Southwest Studies webpage. All thanks to the dedicated students in one archival course.”
Martin agrees. “They're performing invaluable and long-lasting archival work for generations to come,” he says, “as well as receiving real-world work experience to take into a job or internship.”