Introduction to Engineering Archives

Submitted in 2016 by Lindsay Anderberg, Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist, New York University,

I have found these sessions to be an engaging introduction for undergraduates.  The hands-on activity allows the students to practice close reading of a variety of primary source formats, while also considering things like tone, audience, and context.  Students really enjoy getting to touch things! (as they tell us in class and in evaluations). Challenges include classroom space, understanding context, and grappling with archival silences.  Although some students will make greater strides than others in terms of understanding how primary sources are situated in knowledge production and how to relate the activity back to the context of their course, all of the students are exposed to the basic idea of primary source research and proper handling of archival materials.

Learning Objectives:
1.) To discuss the differences between primary and secondary sources through hands-on experience with archival materials.

2.) To understand how primary and secondary sources contribute to knowledge production in scientific fields.

3.) To think about different types of formats and the means of their creation, including: when, how, for what purpose/for whom, where were these documents created.

4.) To gain a preliminary understanding of the types of items archives collect and how they can be used for research.

Course Profile: This course was created for an undergraduate Seminar in Science and Technologies Studies.

Collections Profile: Selections came from Poly Archives collections, including  the papers of scientists, engineers, and engineering corporations. See the selection list here.

Preparation: It is best to have a room with large tables for this group activity. Pre-curate sets of materials appropriate for groups of 4-6 students to explore. Each group gets one set of two worksheets.

Class Outline:

1.) (30 minutes) Ask the students to pick a collection of materials from the Poly Archives to explore (4 groups of 6). The students will be asked to explore the pre-curated sets of materials and will be given a set of questions to prompt their thinking about the creation of the materials and connections between materials. Students will answer Question Set 1.

2.) (30 minutes) The groups will re-mix and present their findings to each other in small groups.  The groups will have a new set of question to answer. These questions will focus on primary/secondary sources, archival research/archival silences. Students will answer Question Set 2.

3.) (40 minutes) After each group has discussed, we will have a full class discussion about how these objects tie into knowledge production in the sciences and broader course themes. Discussion is co-led by the seminar professor and the archivist. Topics include what is missing from each collection that would help understanding; importance of archives to studying the history of science and engineering; and how the use of archival items can be different for different audiences and purposes.

Question Set 1

Question Set 2


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