Academic Service-Learning and the Archives

(Moderator note: This post was written by Laura Jacobs, Interim Library Director of the Jim Dan Hill Library, University of Wisconsin – Superior.)

UW-Superior is a small, public liberal arts institution, one of 12 comprehensive colleges that make up the University of Wisconsin System. As part of our vision, we strive to “be known as an institution that transforms learners, engages the community, and enhances the vitality of its region.” (Strategic Plan 20/20) As part of our strategic plan, the university has initiated a number of high-impact practices, including Academic Service-Learning. During the past five years, faculty and instructional staff were encouraged to explore and incorporate these practices into their courses. While this is an admirable goal, the library had been left on the fringes, especially with Academic Service-Learning. This was particularly problematic from the library’s perspective, since most projects require the development of background knowledge coupled with application at a local level, employing complex library skills such as locating and analyzing community demographic data in order to create materials for a local non-profit organization; or reaching beyond a cursory search of the Web in order to form a model of a bustling city as it appeared at the turn of the 20th century.

My own experience with Academic Service-Learning occurred accidentally, when I found myself serendipitously placed in the role of facilitator. In Fall 2011, one section of first year writing had been designed with a service-learning component. The instructor partnered with the local historical society to develop first-year students’ research and writing skills while introducing them to the community in which they now lived. The Douglas County (WI) Historical Society had embarked on a project to develop a comprehensive history of buildings within the city of Superior, many of which had been built during the 1880’s. Student research would be used to support revitalization of an historic area of the downtown.

The students were grouped in teams of 3-4 and assigned a building. They were asked to determine when the building was built, by whom, and provide a comprehensive history of its use, including the names and dates of businesses that had occupied its space. They also noted any remodeling, change of function, expansion or division of the space, as well as disasters or even destruction of the structure. The culmination of the project was a formal presentation and poster session by each group during a reception hosted by the Historical Society for its members and the public.

As the university’s information literacy librarian and archivist, I was approached by the instructor at the beginning of the term to provide a “one-shot” instruction session needed for their regular writing assignments. During the planning phase I learned of the academic service project, and pointed out some pitfalls that the instructor had not anticipated. Donning my hat as archivist, I proposed some modifications based on knowledge of local resources and also how complex – and random – some portions of the project might appear to students who were not familiar with such research.

Working closely with the instructor to determine her goals, we ultimately developed 2 separate instruction sessions, with additional scheduled class time during which students could receive additional research consultation. In the first session I provided traditional information on how to use the library databases to learn about historic building styles common during different periods, and described the use of microfilm to search city newspapers both for articles and advertisements. We explored several unique web-based resources, including the Wisconsin Architecture and History Inventory website, where they might be able to determine a few facts about their building.

The second session took place in the archives one week later. Prior to their visit, I asked the instructor to have each student fill out a registration form, so they could experience the process of gaining access to restricted environments. Students also were required to bring whatever they had learned about their building using information from session one. I asked them to imagine they were detectives piecing together facts that might not seem at first to be related. We perused old city Directories that included historic sketches of the development of the city and of significant edifices and organizations of the time. We looked street-by-street and year-by-year to determine how a building was used and sometimes traced the proprietors of the businesses. We coupled that with examining fire insurance maps to determine the materials from which the buildings were constructed and identifying nearby structures. I then described how they would need to go to a number of city or county offices to obtain additional pieces of their puzzle. I emphasized that they would need to be aware of service hours and that they wouldn’t always find an answer. The office might be busy and staff unable to assist them; or the information they found might even appear contradictory. Some resources were only available at the local Public Library. At each office, staff was prepared for students seeking old tax records or microfilm. However, students were cautioned they would have to search for answers themselves, and might require hours scanning un-indexed documents or film, looking at ads or local notices. I warned them that, although I was available as a resource to help them work their way through difficult parts, the collections in our own archives would not be of much help, as the types of records they needed were not housed in our facility.

These recommendations proved accurate, in that some students were told by the city that records for their building appeared in one year, which was contradicted by the city directories and sometimes by our own manuscript holdings that showed the building constructed and occupied decades before the city’s records.

Common wisdom assumes that students will not be interested in “old stuff”, nor understand that not all answers are on the Web. We instead found the students were very enthusiastic about their visit to the archives, and took up the challenge that there might not be a definitive answer. They learned that people were often the best resource. They made numerous treks to City offices, but also returned frequently to the archives to confirm what they had found, or to try to sort out confusing periods. Students reported knocking on doors and talking to owners and employees directly, from which they gleaned community perspectives on changes that had occurred over the years. Through researching about one assigned building, they learned about the struggles and attitudes of the community spanning more than 130 years. They took pictures and made drawings and timelines, and filled their posters with stories and advertisements gleaned from the newspapers. Even those frustrated by a lack of information and other roadblocks managed to bring something of value to the overall project.

Although the first run of the academic service learning project had rough spots, neither the instructor nor the Historical Society was deterred. They embarked on a second version of the project the following semester, with minor modifications. During Spring the project was introduced immediately and continued running underneath other writing assignments in the course. Buildings were more carefully vetted for inclusion. Groups were given greater scrutiny prior to initiation, and more oversight along the way. While this project has been completed, the importance of the library to student success was apparent. As a result, we communicate our willingness to partner with instructors to develop successful service-learning projects at every opportunity.

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