Posted by: Ashley | December 11, 2015

Student Websites Highlighting Archival Research

[This blog post was written by Kim Andersen, Audio Visual Materials Archivist, and Debbi Blake, Head of the Collections Services Section.]

Screenshot of the Resources and Tools for Education page on the State Archives website.

Screenshot of the Resources and Tools for Education page on the State Archives website.

The State Archives of North Carolina collaborated with a film studies class at NC State University in 2015 to bring to light a collection of motion picture films that the State Archives housed but about which very little was known – the Century Film Studio Collection, MPF.122.  This collection of films and film elements had been in the Archives since the 1980s but remained unprocessed and not easily accessible. Enter film archivist Melissa Dollman who, through a set of unlikely (and extremely fortuitous for the State Archives) circumstances, came to volunteer in the collection and wound up completely arranging and describing it, as well as obtaining funding through a National Film Preservation Foundation Grant to have two of the titles restored. She ended up becoming so interested in the Century Films and the filmmaker O. B. Garris who founded the Century Film Studio that she approached NCSU Professor of Film Studies Dr. Devin Orgeron and suggested making the Century Films and Century Film Studio the main research topic of one of his classes, which they did!

The resulting student research has added phenomenally to the usefulness of these films and led to a public screening and collaborative panel discussion about the Century Films, a multimedia exhibit in the iPearl Immersion Theater at NC State’s Hunt Library, and most recently this website – https://centuryfilmcollection.wordpress.com/ – created by the students as an ongoing sustainable presence for their class project!

The website serves as an appendage and chronicle of the “Local History through The Camera Lens: Raleigh’s Own Century Film Studios” screening and exhibit (October-December 2015) that took place in the Hunt Library. Graduate students and advanced undergraduates in North Carolina State University Film Professor Dr. Devin Orgeron’s Seminar in Nonfiction Media (ENG 585 / Fall 2015) were assigned films from the Century Film Productions Motion Picture Films Collection housed at the State Archives of North Carolina. Students researched the films’ histories and established a context for understanding the studio’s owner/operator O.B. Garris’ work and the historical moment during which they were produced.

The creation of such a website enables the outstanding work of these dedicated students and instructors to have a meaningful life beyond the end of their class and the distribution of their grades.  Not only will the students have something to which they can direct the attention of future employers and/or graduate admissions personnel, all of us out in the world will have access to the wonderful body of research the students did.  The staff of the State Archives can direct our researchers to this site and there they will find a fabulous wealth of information about one of our heretofore hidden collections and they will have online access to digital excerpts of several of the films at their fingertips – all in one place!

Can the activities of this class serve as a model for others whose work with State Archives’ primary sources results in research of ongoing value and interest?  We think it can – and not just for college-level classes but for high school and maybe grade school classes! The use of primary source materials adds immeasurably to students’ understanding and enjoyment of history. Images or writings of real people help students make personal connections that they might not make when confronted solely with events and dates. Using primary documents in the classroom not only personalizes history; it also:

  • Encourages students to ask questions;
  • Allows students to acknowledge a variety of points of view;
  • Establishes historical context;
  • Allows students to see cause and effect;
  • Encourages students to identify bias;
  • Allows students to understand change over time;
  • Encourages students to investigate evidence;
  • Allows students to reflect on how the past illuminates the present;
  • Allows students to determine validity and reliability of sources;
  • Promotes the importance of checking multiple sources;
  • Encourages students to consider the importance of information not found in the document;
  • Allows teachers to supplement text or use document alone;
  • Illuminates locations where significant events took place.

Projects similar to that of Dr. Orgeron’s class could take several forms. Students might be assigned letters, or even last wills and testaments, and research into each writer’s life. What do the works tell about their creators? What are the similarities and differences in the works? A project with photographs could involve those from different parts of the state, or the same area but from different time periods, with student analysis of them. A collection of photos of the town in which the school is located might be of great interest to students. Each student, or group, could take a different era and discuss the new businesses or infrastructures of the town. How does the technology change over time? When all projects are assembled together, the class could produce a photographic history of the community.

Numerous types of primary sources are available at the State Archives and online in the North Carolina Digital Collections, Internet Archive, Flickr, and YouTube.  On the State Archives website, there is a tab for educators that leads to some of the educational materials provided and another link to the online collections. At the Archives, along with government documents, such as last wills and testaments and court documents, there are private manuscript collections, photographic negatives, motion pictures, audio recordings, including oral interviews, posters and maps. The National Archives has analysis sheets for specific types of primary documents available on their website, www.nara.gov. The following questions may help teachers and students judge the quality of primary sources and the types of skills that may be enhanced by their use in the classroom:

  • Who created the source and why? Was it created through a spur-of-the-moment act, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?
  • Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the event? Or, did the recorder report what others saw and heard?
  • Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the creator have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded?
  • Did the recorder produce the source for personal use, for one or more individuals, or for a large audience?
  • Was the source meant to be public or private?
  • Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others? (Check the words in the source. The words may tell you whether the recorder was trying to be objective or persuasive.) Did the recorder have reasons to be honest or dishonest?
  • Was the information recorded during the event, immediately after the event, or after some lapse of time? How large a lapse of time?

Questions such as those above solicit engagement from students and investigation into the history of real people involved in real events. When such connections are made they can be shared with the larger community, not just with each other in the classroom. What better way to accomplish that than a website? What Dr. Orgeron and his class have developed can serve as a template for other exciting class projects centered on primary sources.

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