Course Description

The Ben Hecht Papers before and after processing.

The goal of “The Archive: Theory, Form, Practice” is to engage students with the fundamentals of archival work while also encouraging them to think deeply about the “big questions” of the archive. The seminar will teach students how to make use of a finding aid; how to handle delicate, rare, and culturally sensitive materials; how to work through voluminous materials; what to ignore; when and how to photograph sources; and how to be a “good citizen” researcher by working with curators and archivists.  Further, students will recognize variations among archival institutions and how to negotiate different reading room policies, rights and reproductions, open access, and copyright. Our central focus on methodology will be buttressed by a deep engagement with conceptual issues raised through a discussion of readings from historians, literary scholars, and theorists, including  Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever (1995); Michelle Caswell, “’The Archive’ is Not An Archives” (2016); Brent Edwards, “The Taste of the Archive” (2012); Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives (1989); and Carolyn Steedman, Dust: The Archive and Cultural History (2002). These readings will help us to understand the history of institutional archives; how the word “archive” has entered our scholarly vocabulary meaning many things; the relationship between empirical documentation and writing narrative; and the “allure” of tactile engagement with the material past.

Students will be given the opportunity to do hands-on archival work in two ways: first, by being tasked to investigate a particular processed Newberry collection to identify its constructed and contingent nature (e.g. its provenance, year of processing, organizational approach); and second, by collaborating with archival staff to write a processing plan for an unprocessed collection at the Newberry. The Newberry houses numerous small, unprocessed collections, which would allow for such a project of devising a processing plan from start to finish over the course of eight weeks.

Students will work through boxes to assess how an unprocessed collection might arrive and then be arranged. In discussion with one another, they will decide which materials might be identified as important and highlighted; recommend which materials might be removed; indicate possible conservation challenges; and take note of possibly culturally sensitive materials. Students will coordinate their work with Newberry archivists and also consult key texts on best practices for processing, including Mark Greene and Dennis Meissner, “More Product, Less Process: Revamping Traditional Archival Processing” (2005); “Protocols for Native American Archival Materials” (2007); and the Society of American Archivists’ Describing Archives: A Content Standard (2013). On the final day of the course, there will be a colloquium event where students will present their final plans to the seminar and Newberry staff.

It is expected that students will spend at least one other day per week at the Newberry pursuing their own research and hands-on archival projects. For students outside of the Chicago area, that extra day would ideally be a Thursday or a Saturday.

The seminar will be held on eight Fridays from February 11- April 8, 2022 (with no class on Feb. 25).  The class will meet from 9:30 am-noon, followed by a catered lunch from noon-1:00 pm. On the first and last seminar days (Feb. 11 and April 8), class will meet from 9:30 am-4:00 pm. Students will also be invited to participate and present in the symposium on May 5-6, 2022.

Spring 2022: Course Syllabus: Coming Soon


The Archive: Theory, Form, Practice is an excellent opportunity for graduate students to learn about archival theories and practices. The course will be helpful for scholars developing their own research plans and for those interested in learning more about work in archival institutions. Students will also be joining a cohort of accomplished fellows from other universities and disciplines.Carbide_and_Carbon_Building_Michigan_Avenue_Chicago_1940s

For Scholarship:

This seminar is designed to train humanities graduate students in good practices of archival research. These skills include: reading a finding aid, taking good notes, organizing data, and navigating the policies and procedures of research institutions. While it is essential that graduate students in the humanities have these skills, too many graduate faculty and departments lack the resources or diversity of experience to impart this training in a way that is relevant to today’s technological landscape.

Research practices have changed in recent decades, and institutions need to better support scholarship in this evolving context. The “digital turn” has transformed archival work in exciting and challenging ways. For example, how do we make sure that what happens in the archive is as much analytical and intellectual as it is digital? And how do we manage all the material that we photograph? This seminar will help students negotiate the difficulties that come from managing and organizing digital information. We will also consider what we learn specifically from the materiality of archival sources, for example paper and inscription technologies. As archives are more widely available electronically, it becomes even more important to cultivate comprehensive understandings of their creation, maintenance, and ephemerality as collections of objects. Our course will be shaped to develop methods and practices relevant for conducting independent research in institutions beyond the Newberry. Through hands-on activities and an analytical consideration of the construction of archives, both digital and material, students will develop purposeful research practices, ensuring that time spent with archives is used productively.

For Career Diversity:

In designing our seminar, we considered recent projects focused on graduate training and career diversity undertaken by the American Historical Association (AHA), the Modern Language Association (MLA), and the pre-doctoral workshops of the Mellon-funded initiative “Humanities without Walls.” We hope that this graduate-level seminar at the Newberry will provide students with the opportunity to hone the “five skills” of career diversity recommended by the AHA. We are also motivated to act upon the findings of the MLA’s “Connected Academics: Preparing Doctoral Students of Language and Literature for a Variety of Careers.” Graduate students in our seminar will develop skills that are especially suited to processing collections and writing finding aids because they will come to understand these tools from two vantage points – those of a researcher and of an archival processor.

For Academic Community:

A major goal of this seminar is to build and support a community around the archival experience of graduate students. Students will have the opportunity to engage with Newberry and visiting faculty and staff, but perhaps most importantly students will develop relationships with each other. A cohort of 18 humanities graduate students will be chosen from different universities and disciplines. It can be difficult to find ways to connect with scholars across fields and institutions, and this program will encourage these early career scholars to forge the kind of relationships that could lead to academic camaraderie and collaboration in the years to come. Each session will be followed by a catered lunch, during which scholars will be able to discuss issues from the course as well as questions related to their own interests and research. This experience will enable students to begin to build a larger network of academic exchange and support, helpful to many aspects of their development as researchers and educators, whether students pursue a traditional academic career or not.