Zoom-Adapted Intro to Archives Class

Submitted by Lindsay Anderberg, Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist, New York University, la715@nyu.edu – Contact me with any questions/comments!

Intro to Me/My position: I am the Interdisciplinary Science & Technology Librarian and Poly Archivist at Bern Dibner Library, New York University.  Dibner Library is located on the Brooklyn Campus of NYU and primarily serves the Tandon School of Engineering.  While the bulk of my teaching with primary sources work has found a natural home in the first year undergraduate Expository Writing Program (which offers two required courses for Tandon students), I have always focused my TPS work around STEM outreach.  I want our science and engineering students to recognize themselves as potential creators of archives and be empowered to find and analyze archival material in their personal and professional lives.

Intro to this Teaching Tool: This synchronous Zoom and Google Drive lesson is based on an in-person session I have taught to lower level and upper level undergraduates at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. The lesson is geared towards any course asking students to do archival research for the first time.  In the physical classroom, pairs of students are given an item from the archives and then asked to provide details about this item using the finding aid.  Although this activity asks them to search in the opposite direction of a typical search, I’ve found that using the physical item in hand as an entry point compels them to truly explore the finding aid rather than glossing through it.  The ultimate goal is for the students to gain familiarity with finding aids so that the term itself and the structure of information is not completely foreign when they begin archival searches on their own.

I had booked three of these sessions for March 26, 2020 and had prepared a cart of examples featuring various archival formats to use for this class.  Of course, this cart was of no use to me at home.  I had one week to flip this lesson into a remote format.  I decided I wanted to keep the class as close to the in-person format as possible, which resulted in the development of a synchronous Zoom instruction session.  I used breakout rooms and directed each breakout group to a Google Drive folder with a digitized item from the archives and the same worksheet I use in my in-person session.

Course Profile: I taught this Zoom lesson in Advanced College Essay, a required course for all first year undergraduates.  But, I have taught this lesson in upper level undergrad courses in the Sustainable Urban Environments program.  This lesson would be an appropriate part of any course which is requiring students to engage in archival research for the first time 

Collections Profile: The Poly Archives collects the records and associated manuscript collections of the former Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute (now the NYU Tandon School of Engineering). Only 1.5 collections from our archives have been formally digitized.  In order to replicate the variety of formats I used in the original lesson, I searched through items in my own Google Drive that I’d scanned for reference or internal requests.  These were not all high-res scans, but they were completely usable for the objective of this lesson.  I always find that imperfections lead to great teaching moments– looking at scans of varying quality helped us to think about how physical materials are represented in digital collections.  And, we were able to dive into discussions about what the students imagined would be different if they were holding these items in their hands.  Since it was now a given that all archival searches these students engaged in for class would be in digital repositories, it was helpful to pair the online finding aid search with conversations about how physical materials are represented digitally.  I’d like to stress that while you do need to have a few digitized items on hand for this lesson, it’s fine if these are random cell phone pics rather than high-res images from a digital repository.


  1. Laptop with Internet access and Zoom account
  2. Google Drive folder of digitized Poly Archives materials
  3. Google Drive worksheet
  4. Google slides with icebreaker prompt and example search

Setting up Google Drive: To prepare for this class, I first needed to identify enough digitized materials for students to be able to work in groups of 2-3. Since this class had 15 students, I dug around in my Drive until I found 7 previously digitized items. Once I identified these items, I made a copy of each one. I created a main Google Drive folder for the class and then made folders labeled Group 1 – Group 7 in that folder. I placed a different digitized item in each folder. I made 7 copies of the worksheet and placed one in each folder. If you are doing multiple sections of the course, which I was, you need to make additional copies of all of these folders for each section. The added benefit of working in Drive is that students can annotate directly on the digitized items, if they’d like. But, this does mean you do want to give each group in each class their own copy of the item. Be sure to set the Drive folder permission settings to either “Public on the web” or “Anyone with the link” and “organize, add, and edit” so that students can actually access and work in these files!

Slides: The slides contain an initial prompt to get students thinking about archives.  Invite students to reply in the chat and then begin to talk through their responses.  Invite them to unmute their mics and say more, if they’d like.

Zoom breakout rooms logistics: I was a guest in a faculty member’s class, so I needed her to grant me permission to share my screen to show my slides. Tell the faculty member to click the caret next to “Share Screen” and then select “Multiple participants can share simultaneously”

I also had the faculty member set the breakout rooms, since she was the meeting host. If you are doing this yourself and are the host of the meeting, all you need to do is click the Breakout Rooms button in Zoom and then select the number of rooms you need.

I told the students I would not randomly pop into their rooms, but that I would be hanging out in their Google Doc worksheets, so if they had any questions they could ask me via the Google Doc chat feature or we could discuss an interesting or confusing observation through comments. When delivering this lesson in person, I will circulate around the room to check in on how the groups are doing, but jumping into a breakout room feels like the equivalent of barging through a closed door into a private conversation. I’ve found that hanging out in the Google Docs allows me to be present without being oppressive and allows me to gauge when we should call the groups back to the main room to discuss their findings. While this is my approach, you do have the ability to go into a breakout room if you want to. I think the most important thing is to set the students’ expectations: if you want to jump into the breakout rooms, be sure to let them know that you will be doing that in advance.

Learning Goals:

  • In this class we will use digitized primary sources from the Poly Archives as a way to 
    • become comfortable with searching archival collections 
    • learning the basic organization of a finding aid
    • writing citations for archival materials, and
    • although students will not be in a reading room, we will talk about the general expectations of handling materials and archival reading rooms.

Activity Outline:

1.Warm up: Show a slide that says “Archives.” Ask the students to write down what they think of when they hear the word “archives”– it could be a definition, an example, an image, etc. After 3 minutes, invite the students to begin writing down some of their thoughts in chat (15 minutes writing & discuss)

2. Introduce today’s lesson: We will work with materials from the Poly Archives in order to become comfortable with searching for and citing archival sources. You will be working in Zoom breakout rooms (up to 7 rooms) in small groups to investigate one object. A worksheet will guide you through this activity. The archivist will model this activity with a sample archives object and search, as shown in the Google Slides. (15 minutes)

3. Activity: Small groups of students will be assigned to Zoom breakout rooms. They will also be directed to this Drive folder. Each folder contains one digitized object from the Poly Archives and one worksheet for the group. Students will be asked to explore their object and to complete the following worksheet in their folder. One student from the group will be elected to unmute their microphone and share their findings over Zoom when they come out of the breakout rooms. (15 minutes)

4. Conclusion: Ask each group to share what they found challenging or what was something new they encountered with the archives search. The archivist can screenshare the object the group is discussing as they comment. The archivist will lead a discussion about how archival collections and finding aids are organized as well as how to cite them. We’ll also go over tips about accessing archives in person and students will be pointed to online resources such as Digital Public Library of America and any other subject specific repositories which might relate to their class (10 minutes)

Looking Forward:
Obviously, if I had planned an online class in advance, I would have taken the time to properly scan hi-res images and include recto/verso or multiple angles for three-dimensional objects. But, as an on-the-fly flip to remote teaching, I think this class was successful and points to the benefits of keeping our TPS classes on the schedule even if they won’t be perfect. There is also something to be said for enticing students to view our physical materials (which are way better than my hodgepodge digital surrogates!) when we physically reopen.

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