One-shot Instructional Sessions and Teaching with Community Based Archives

By Jennifer Olguin

New Mexico State University (NMSU) Archives and Special Collections (ASC) is situated uniquely in the southern New Mexico community of Las Cruces, just 40 miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. The NMSU ASC is comprised of four units: Political Collections, Special Collections, University Archives, and the Rio Grande Historical Collections. As a research archive within an academic institution, the ASC receives requests for one-shot instructional sessions throughout the academic year from faculty members teaching classes across a variety of academic disciplines. These instructional sessions take place in the Archives reading room. The goal of the NMSU ASC is to generate interest and enthusiasm in primary sources, encourage students to consider archives as a go-to resource, and to help them feel comfortable and confident utilizing unique documentary resources.

While we also offer instruction sessions for high school students and local community-based organizations, for the sake of this reflection my focus will be aimed at instructional sessions geared toward the campus community. Throughout the reflection, I will discuss how I design class instructional sessions to draw awareness to archival material and how it has an impact on student learning. In addition, I will discuss my overall experience when providing one-shot instructional sessions.

Designing class instructional sessions and bringing awareness

During my four years as the archivist of the Rio Grande Historical Collection (RGHC), I have conducted approximately 20 instructional sessions. It is typical to discover that the majority of the students visiting have no prior knowledge of an archive and its function. They are surprised to see the vast amount of historical material tucked away in the repository. While teaching the single sessions, my pedagogical aim is to encourage the group in attendance to utilize and explore community-based archival resources in their coursework, think critically, and feel comfortable navigating their way when conducting primary source research. During these one-shot instructional sessions, I view my role as an archivist transition from a gatekeeper of the archives to what you may consider a steward of the archives (Hoelscher, 2022). During the session, I attempt to provide the students with the necessary knowledge and tools they need to begin their research in the archive.

Jennifer Olguin guides 3 students referencing collections materials from a half Hollinger document box at a table in the Archives Reading Room.
Jennifer Olguin interacting with students during an instructional session and explaining the significance of the letter.

The sessions that I have given in the past usually have been for undergraduate and graduate level classes in History, English, and other humanities-based disciplines. Nonetheless, my goal is to draw other disciplines into the archives and demonstrate the value of incorporating community-based primary sources into their curriculum. Designing these types of sessions comes with added benefits. Some include bringing awareness to a larger campus community, promoting the usage of archival materials, and connecting individuals to their cultural heritage.

As the instructional session requests are submitted, I communicate with the facilitator and gather basic information such as the course objectives, class syllabus, and any other information that that the facilitator deems worthy to make the learning experience successful and align with the course objectives. The method by which I craft the instructional sessions varies in nature depending on the type of audience the session is intended for, but I usually design the sessions in two parts, utilizing a mixture of lecture and interactive learning formats. During the first half, I explain the function of an archive, policies, types of collections housed in the repository, how to access archival material, and general housekeeping information. In the second half, I provide the attendees an opportunity to interact and engage with the archival material.

Regardless of the audience, I rely on various cultural heritage/community-based collections for the participants to interact and engage with during the session. I view the sessions as a time to share with the visiting group a piece of the region’s rich cultural heritage. Teaching with community-based archives is beneficial and offers great insight which reflects the voices of students and community members.

Utilizing community-based archives allows students, most of whom have roots in our region,
to see themselves reflected in historical documents and to develop a sense of belonging.

Stewardship is a key component in librarianship. As a cultural heritage professional at an academic archive, I view the time I have during the instruction session as an opportunity to captivate, engage, and inform the visiting group about the archives. Stewardship and collaboration with the campus community allow for the usage of community-based archives and further promote local history. Utilizing community-based archives allows students, most of whom have roots in our region, to see themselves reflected in historical documents and to develop a sense of belonging.

Impact on student learning

Being in the vicinity of the U.S.-Mexico border, the NMSU ASC holds a number of archival collections that represent underrepresented groups such as the Latinx population. Considering that NMSU is a minority-serving institution, awareness is key because students could identify with certain populations who created the archival records.  It is important that the student population is aware of the history and contributions these underrepresented groups have made to southern New Mexico and the Borderlands.

During the sessions, I utilize archival collections such as the Amador family papers and the Wendell Phillip Thorpe papers to demonstrate complicated ethnic histories in our area. The Amador family papers provide a glimpse of a Mexican-American family of prominence in the border region of southern New Mexico and northern Chihuahua, Mexico during the 19th and early 20th centuries. The family papers provide a glimpse of how a Mexican-American family navigated life on the U.S.-Mexico border and the letters found within the papers often cover family matters which are relevant today.

The Wendell Phillip Thorpe papers document a white farmer from the Las Cruces area who was highly involved in the local farm bureau but also held critical state and national positions as an administrator of the Bracero Program. The Bracero Program was an agreement between the governments of the United States and Mexico, which spanned the years 1942-1964, in which Mexican migrant workers were hired for seasonal periods, often in the agricultural industry, due to labor shortages initially created by WWII. The Thorpe papers document living conditions, wages, and responses to farmers not adhering to national regulations concerning the Bracero Program.

Depending on the size of the class, I break up the students into small groups and ask them to interact and analyze the various formats they encounter in the archival collections, such as handwritten letters, maps, ledgers, photographs, newspapers, and legal documents. I utilize the same structure when I have larger groups visiting, but one of the differences is that students in smaller groups have the opportunity to individually discuss their findings and observations. In contrast, in large group settings, they have a group representative relaying the information. For both small and large group settings, I utilize the National Archives document analysis worksheet and have the students spend 10-15 minutes analyzing the documents. While the students discuss in groups, lively discussions often occur and students are eager to report their findings to their classmates. They are often amazed because many of them never imagined that such records of our past have been preserved and are openly accessible.

At the end of each session, I provide the students with a short evaluation survey that captures feedback for my instructional needs and purposes. Also, within the survey are questions that relate to student learning impact and the majority of the students respond that after the session they are confident in their ability to track down primary sources and are likely to use the NMSU ASC in future historical research. In addition to the survey, I receive emails from instructors with statements that support the idea that the session has an impact on student learning. For example, one professor recently shared with me the following such as “Not only was your lecture engaging and relevant but also the in-class activity created for them was both helpful in illustrating the points made in your lecture and fun and thought-provoking.” Overall, my experiences implementing community-based archives into instructional sessions have been positive and well-received.


I encourage my fellow archivists to take a dive and look within their repositories and attempt to integrate community-based collections into class instructional sessions – it may change how students see their cultural heritage represented.

I encourage my fellow archivists to take a dive and look within their repositories and attempt to integrate community-based collections into class instructional sessions – it may change how students see their cultural heritage represented. Granted it takes some time to prepare for a class session, but there is a wealth of community-based archival materials that can fit just about any discipline. I would suggest doing a pilot instructional session and seeing how it is received by the group and then modifying the session if needed for future instruction. In general, students have overwhelmingly been enthusiastic about the archives as seen in past survey evaluations. For instance, after one of the sessions I had a student stay after and shared with me that they were majoring in Art and they gained insight into the different ways that photographs found in an archive can communicate information about the past. In closing, community-based collections are invaluable and reflect the voices of community members, which novice researchers can become familiar with during instructional sessions.

Amador Family Papers, 1856-1949. Ms 0004. New Mexico State University Library, Archives and Special Collections Department.

Hoelscher, C. (2022). “One-Shots in Special Collections and Archives: Moving from Gatekeeper to Guide.” College & Research Libraries, 83(5), 848–.

Wendell Phillips Thorpe papers. Ms 0050. Archives and Special Collections, New Mexico State University Library.

Jennifer Olguin is the Rio Grande Historical Collections Archivist at New Mexico State University. She obtained her undergraduate degrees from New Mexico State University in 2008 and her MLS from the University of North Texas in 2018. Before her current faculty position, she held a paraprofessional position at NMSU Library for 10 years.