“I Come Bearing Gifts”: Pedagogy for the Scholar-Archivists’ Soul

As if it were yesterday, I remember my first foray into original research. I was working on a research paper pertaining to the Harlem Suitcase theatre, a small Harlem based repertory group for African American thespians and writers, founded by Louise Thompson Patterson and Langston Hughes in the 1930s. Patterson’s papers were newly acquired by Emory University’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL), thus began my storied romance with archives. I distinctly recall the nervous excitement and the attendant goose bumps that freckled my arms as I sifted through box after box and folder after folder of correspondence, playbills, scripts, and photographs among other primary sources. In hindsight, this was the beginning of my journey toward becoming a scholar-archivist.

As an IMLS fellow in the Mudd Manuscript Library at Princeton University, I am often charged with the task of engaging students, many of whom are in the nascent stages of research projects and some who have never stepped foot in an archival repository. It is in these moments, where I draw upon the unique skills that are endemic to the life of a scholar-archivist, illuminating the practical and intellectual uses of archival records.  To begin, I closely read, sometimes two or three times, the instructor’s syllabus to get a sense of the questions and ethos that shapes the course. Secondly, I research the library database to find collections that might inform the course’s thematic objectives, and once this is complete, I draft an annotated bibliography of these resources in preparation for the class visit. Throughout this process and in consultation with my colleagues, I am constantly generating questions that will invite students to think more critically about the course and the primary sources at their disposal.

I often open classes with the phrase: “I come bearing gifts,” as students climb into their seats, their eyes bouncing off of the sea of gray and cream hollinger boxes that stand before them.  For me, “bearing gifts” is more than ice-breaker parlance; in my view, there is something far more altruistic in this language. The opportunity to use archives as a pedagogical tool does something special for the scholar-archivists’ soul,  it sparks the imagination; it enlarges the scope of how research can be conducted; it provides students with the tools to produce original scholarship; and it, in fact, still gives me goose bumps.

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