By Patricia Carroll
Several colleagues and I proposed a panel presentation for this year’s Midwest Archives Conference (MAC) Annual Meeting in Chicago. Our topic was one-shot interactions in the archives. Our questions were these: Can we teach effectively in these situations? Can we balance hands-on visitor experiences with our commitment to preservation, archival literacy, and historical thinking? Most important, can we foster connections between visitors and collections that will extend beyond a very brief interaction?
Our team consisted of Colleen McFarland Rademaker, Associate Librarian, Special Collections of the Corning Museum of Glass, who explored methodologies used by those who interpret heritage artifacts. Carrie Phillips, Archives and Special Collections Librarian at Bluffton University discussed her experiences using rare books to teach undergraduates. My part was to introduce principles of message design. Anne Thomason, Archivist and Special Collections Librarian at Lake Forest College, served as our able moderator.
From the outset we felt that this phenomenon, the one-shot interaction with archives visitors, deserved focused attention. The feedback we received post-conference confirmed that the discussion was welcomed and that our audience hoped for a more expanded exploration of the topic in our profession going forward.
I should say right now that I am not an academic archivist. My practical knowledge of instructional design is rooted in my experience as a corporate trainer. Because it was my job to support employees in achieving sales goals, I focused on “how-to” skill training. For the MAC presentation I put forward some concepts to help archivists deliver skills training to visitors in a one-shot scenario. Here’s a recap.
1. The Client
In the normal course of events, someone asks us to teach a class, guide a tour or otherwise show off the archives. That someone is our client, the person who turns to us to address a knowledge or skill gap. It is helpful to understand two things about the client. One, that she or he is a partner with a stake in the one-shot outcome and two, that she or he is not always clear on what can reasonably be accomplished within the given parameters. Pre-event discussion will help you understand the gap, and post-event reporting can help build and strengthen a collaborative relationship with the client.
2. The Audience
The actual folks you host in the archives are your audience, known as “learners” in Instructional Design. You may be able to make some educated guesses about the learners before you begin or, better yet, gain insight through discussion with your client. What is important to bear in mind in your prep and delivery is that adult learners always come equipped with the WIIFM factor: What’s In It For Me? They are not idly curious. They want to get something in exchange for their time and attention. That is particularly true when the audience did not self-select for the archives experience.
3. Lesson Design
Perhaps the most rudimentary framework for lesson design is this one: Tell ‘em what you’re going to tell ‘em. Tell ‘em. Then tell ‘em what you told ‘em. And it’s actually a pretty solid approach if you must lecture or do a walk-and-talk tour of the archives.
But remember that WIIFM factor I mentioned? Your learners will be expecting to get something. For that something, you can turn to the Learning Objectives outlined in the ACRL-RBMS-SAA Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. In five major category headings, this document enumerates “how-to” skills that are the building blocks of Primary Source Literacy. Match the need/knowledge/skill/ability level of the audience to one of the many options, and you have the beginnings of a lesson.
Start at the end. Once you select a learning objective to aim at with your learners, ask yourself this question, “What must the learner know or be able to do before she can do that?” And repeat. And repeat. This process will suggest to you the elements to build into your plan in order to achieve the learning objective.
Don’t overlook the beginning, either. This is where non-professional speakers so often go wrong by failing to jump right in. Greet your audience promptly and briefly. Preview what’s going to happen in the time you spend together. Then, forecast the outcome by saying something like, “Once you have completed the steps of today’s lesson, you will be able to…” It’s the “you will be able to” phrase that tells learners what’s in it for them.
4. Active Learning
Learners will want to actively engage with archival materials. But how? Demonstration, worksheets and group discussion are some tried and true options to consider. Because the hands-on activity learners experience in the archives is so impactful, I recommend that you do some research on active training to discover what might work best for you, in your setting, with your learners. I would point you to Mel Silberman and Elaine Biech’s Active Training: A Handbook of Techniques, Designs, Case Examples and Tips. This book is now in its fourth edition, is readily available (Amazon, for example) and very approachable. The case studies and examples it provides are helpful in thinking through sequencing in a learning activity.
At MAC, Colleen McFarland Rademaker used a classic interpretive recitation developed for the National Park Service as an example and Carrie Phillips detailed her daring and successful Traveling Rare Bible Petting Zoo lesson. Both of these great ideas were honed, refined, reworked and reassessed over time. That kind of extensive follow-up is very much a part of designing solid learning experiences. Feedback and commentary on what works, what doesn’t quite work and what missed the target will inform your recalibration efforts, so that you can ultimately get an effective lesson design ‘on the shelf’ and ready to go when you need it.
6. It’s a process
One-shot interactions are by nature limited in terms of time, resources and complexity. Can they be effective learning experiences? I believe they can be. At the same time it must be said that archivists who want to take on the challenge of mastering this art form will need to be tenacious to gain a skill set for which our professional training does not fully prepare us. Supportive clients, a strong outreach orientation and cross-disciplinary exposure to instructional design, museum education and heritage interpretation, for example, are prerequisite to developing and delivering meaty and meaningful one-shot interactions.
Patricia Carroll is an independent archivist specializing in the heritage collections of religious communities. She earned an MA in Human Performance and Training at Governors State University and her MLIS at Dominican University.