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Library Stories

Sharing stories of collaboration, innovation, and impact at ULS libraries

New Perspectives From Old Materials

"With this project, I have created something helpful for the library, faculty at the University, my fellow students, and myself. I had never expected to learn so much about the world or myself.”  -- Leslie Rose, Archival Scholars Research Award recipient

We knew our Archival Scholars Research Awards (ASRA) would provide benefits to the students themselves, but we were thrilled and proud to have helped these undergraduates find a deeper connection with their research material, their future academic/career plans, and future scholars and researchers.

ASRA started last year when a few University Library System (ULS) librarians got together to discuss applying for a mini-grant from Pitt's "Year of the Humanities" theme to create internships for students to work with primary source material and archival collections, and then present the final research projects in a concluding event. Our librarians work daily with graduate students, faculty, and researchers on dissertations, projects, in-depth research and more, but undergraduates are largely unware of the rich resources in our archives and special collections. A group of librarians got together to address this gap.

These librarians collectively outlined a number of potential internship position descriptions based on some of the ULS's popular collections, such as Gender, Sexuality, and Women's studies, Pittsburgh history, childhood studies/history of children, as well as topics in music or fine arts. Our librarians' plan was to focus on the archival methods of organization and description to increase the discoverability of lesser known archives and special collections, but they wanted to include student-created output that might include inventories, processing plans, archival finding aids, or metadata that could be of benefit to the library. This would provide a unique opportunity for students to see their research go further than just supporting their own work, as they created academic tools to help future researchers better discover some of the same material or experienced different connections in the learning community of Pitt and beyond.

The requirements for the award included a written proposal by the students, a reflection essay for the Office of Undergraduate Research (OUR), our partner in this program, and an assignment related to the research, such as a working lesson plan, or other piece as approved by the faculty mentor. The archives research component would include the archival research under the supervision of a librarian and the creation of a library deliverable as we initially envisioned, such as finding aids, inventories, or metadata. Other options included a Tumblr site detailing research findings, an annotated bibliography, or a specific LibGuide, a detailed subject guide. The archive award recipients also agreed to five research hours per week, three workshops to attend over the term, and an end of year presentation that included all the OUR award recipients – the "Celebration of Research" event.  A final segment of the award agreement that we added this year is the option and encouragement for the awardee to deposit their final work(s) in the University's institutional repository, D-Scholarship.

The Celebration of Research took place in Alumni Hall last April. Our ASRA award winners joined their peers in a maze of poster boards zigzagging across the room.
The excited students, dressed in their presentation-worthy outfits, stood in front of their posters, presenting in shifts, alternating so all of the students would have the chance to share with their peers, as well as visiting faculty, families, and other members of the Pitt community.  The room buzzed with energy as over 400 students simultaneously shared the results of their research.

One of the ASRA students who worked with our music librarian, pointed to reproductions of Gregorian chants, showing an analysis of the scribed manuscripts that provided him with "insight into how historians and archaeologists piece together independent objects and ideas in order to come up with broader theories about how the world works.” On the next aisle over, a medical student planning a career in pediatrics used books from our Nesbitt Collection, which is comprised primarily of children's literature and material related to the history of children and their books and media. This student wanted to learn more about the history of black characters written during the Black Arts period (1965-1975) which she noted will inform her work with diverse patients. A third student followed his interest in activism, using our archives of Pittsburgh queer periodicals from the 70s and 80s to examine queer identity in the Pittsburgh area in the latter half of the twentieth century. His analysis brought out an altogether unexpected aspect of researching primary sources, as he explained in his final reflection, "What I did not expect were the acute feelings of nostalgia. . .  As I traced the development of queer culture in the steel city, I began to notice in myself a profound longing for the sense of community created by historic marginality.” He also wrote several Tumblr posts for our Special Collections Tumblr blog as part of his project. Their learning experiences were deep and rich – touching in some of the students the same sense of excitement and pride that we in the library and archives realize every day in our dealings with primary source material.
We recently confirmed our second set of ASRA students for spring semester. This group will be focusing on subjects that include:

  • playing card history and the historical and social value of the artwork of playing cards to inform and inspire a future book of poetry
  • using the annual medical records of the Department of the Insane in the Western Pennsylvania Hospital of Pittsburgh to investigate how psychiatric care has evolved in response to medicine, as well as changes in social perceptions of mental health in the Pittsburgh community
  • tracing the evolution of the female hero from a historical context in children's fantasy literature

In addition, this year we have three students all using our collection of Black Panther newspapers for different research topics and projects. Their proposals include researching the international support of the Black Panther Party throughout the organization's history, how the newspapers reflect African and African American artistic and cultural practice to determine if they share any visual commonalities with other leftist publications during the time, and the creation of pedagogical activity to allow future students to engage with this collection.

The example of these three students working on one collection illustrates the rich possibilities and wide variety of connections even one collection can bring to a variety of research topics. The ASRA awards are an enriching experience for select undergraduates to become researchers, scholars, and, along with their librarian advisors, members of a learning organization building a community of knowledge for future researchers to both better access and engage with our unique historical collections.