Sunday, March 14, 2010

Another introduction and National History Day mentoring

Since this is my first post, I'll start with a quick introduction. My name is Jessica Miller and, along with Ben, I am one of this year's RAO section interns. I graduated from Wayne State University's School of Library and Information Science in December and am currently working in my first professional position as a project archivist in Chicago.

I recently had the opportunity to volunteer as a student mentor for the Chicago Metro History Fair. The program allows Chicago area 6th through 12th grade students to conduct original historical research and enter their final products into a local competition. Students are not required to adhere to the National History Day theme, but winners whose projects do so advance to the state and possibly national levels.

Because I volunteered for the fair as a whole and was not affiliated with a particular repository, my experience was probably a bit different than what many of you may be seeing at your institutions. I was a bit nervous at first since I have no teaching experience and haven’t spent much time with students of that age. I hope my experience can help to alleviate fears anyone may have about working with younger students.

I was assigned to assist students with their research at the Chicago Public Library’s main branch on Sunday afternoons. Over the course of three weekends I worked with about ten students, most of whom were in grades 6 through 10. They were in varying stages of the research process—some needed help formulating their theses, some needed help locating secondary source background material, and others were ready to begin visiting special collections and archives and needed information on how to go about doing so. Unfortunately, CPL’s special collections reading room is closed on Sundays, so I didn’t get to work with any students in that setting. I was able to refer a few students to local repositories and explain a bit about the archival research process, though.

I found that I was amazed at the caliber of work students in this age group were doing, especially since my most vivid memories of 8th grade history are fill-in-the-blank dittos and U.S. map quizzes. History Fair students’ topics included a Civil War prisoner camp near Chicago, the Special Olympics (which originated in Chicago!), feminism in the 1960s, and how the 1893 World’s Fair impacted and included women. The research technique I showed students the most was how to check footnotes, photo captions, and endnotes to find additional sources. A few students found CPL’s newspaper databases to be helpful, especially if PDF images of articles were available.

Although my experience was more library based than archives based, I hope it might help convince folks who are nervous or on the fence about NHD to take the plunge. I think it is also worth noting that few of the students I met were aware of the wealth of archival resources available available in the area, and I wonder whether it is feasible or desirable to reach out to them a bit more.

I’m glad to have had the chance to dip my toes into NHD/History Fair activities and I can say with confidence that I’ll be back next year.