Using archives and special collections in teaching at Swansea University

With thanks to Elisabeth Bennett, Ian Glen, Chris Hall and Sian Williams, ISS, Swansea University for this guest posting.

Practice of History group studying Twentieth Century Britain: Economy, Employment and Living Standards at the Richard Burton Archives’

Practice of History group studying Twentieth Century Britain: Economy, Employment and Living Standards at the Richard Burton Archives’

We have just come to the end of a busy term with ‘Practice of History’ students. ‘The Practice of History’ is a compulsory module for all second level single honours and joint honours History students. It aims to teach students the essential skills required by historians but in the past had been lecture based and received negative feedback from students.

Following student feedback, the module was redesigned to make it more practical and based around working with primary sources. Throughout the semester students are introduced to a variety of sources through seminars, lectures and visits to archives and libraries across Swansea.

To a certain extent how the module is delivered is up to the individual lecturers. Within the University, lecturers may take their groups to Rare Books and Special Collections, the Richard Burton Archives or the South Wales Miners’ Library. Beyond the University, they may visit West Glamorgan Archives or the Local History section at the Central Library, both located in the Civic Centre, Swansea. Other groups use online sources to explore their particular topic. However, there is a certain amount of cross-pollination as a number of the groups go to the same places.

The seminar groups are led by academics from across the History Department, and they focus on a variety of different topics including education through the ages, World War One, life and death in the Victorian era, twentieth century Britain and the atomic age. By being introduced to, and working with, a broad range of documents the students explore the uses that are made of this material by historians, and the intellectual and practical problems which can arise.

The students benefit from encountering non-academic staff, in the form of archivists and librarians in the various archives and libraries, and finding out at first-hand how we can help them with their research. The sessions are usually been team taught by the lecturer and a member of library or archives staff and as well as introducing them to primary sources the sessions give students a greater awareness of what materials are available, potentially helping them find dissertation topics. This different form of staff contact time puts the students in touch with a wealth of professional skills and experience which builds upon that of the academic staff, and the group visits make the new venues less daunting.

Since the introduction of the restyled module feedback from the students is has improved. Although they still list aspects that they don’t enjoy and identify areas for development overall the comments are now generally positive. The new module has also benefitted the library and archive services that are used as we have an opportunity to interact with the students and staff at a much closer level and are contributing to raising standards (and grades) and improving the student experience.

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