Working With Archival Material

The politics of archival collecting and indexing are notoriously thorny.  Whose voices are represented? Who can access their material?  How is it organized?  By referencing archival material in our posts we invite you to consider those questions in relation to the ideas discussed on the site.  Referencing the archive also makes an implicit argument for the institutional place and relevance of Latina/o Studies.  But, what can you do with archival items?

With help from UCLA’s Center for Digital Humanities, we developed a plug in that pulls archival material from two places: the Digital Public Library of America and Calisphere.  The plug in seeks related material based on the tags we use to describe our posts.  That is why some of what you see at the bottom of the page seems a bit random.  We like it this way, and if you read on, we’ll explain why and give you some guidance on incorporating this material into your lessons and research.

When you begin archival research, you never really know what you’ll find.  You might be looking for something specific, or maybe not; either way, you’ll follow a meandering path through another person’s idiosyncratic collection of material.  Our plug in, by virtue of its seemingly tangential search results, enacts the surprises that often confront the archival researcher.  We hope you’ll delight in the unexpected as much as we do.

We imagine two ways readers of this site might be using archival material: for teaching and for research.  We’ve divided the resources below accordingly.

Teaching:  Your go to source for teaching ideas should be DocsTeach from the National Archives.  Our plug in pulls from the National Archives (through but DocsTeach has tools for building your own on-line activities using their material, as well as many pre-formulated activities and lesson plans you can use in class or for homework.

Calisphere (which our plug in also pulls from) has a wealth of teaching resources, too, including ready-to-use worksheets on Cartoon and photograph analysis and interpreting written archival material.

DocTeach offers the following basic advice for a first pass at archival material.  You can use these questions to build discussion around material you find on our site:

“For any type of document — a written document, image, map, chart, graph, audio or video — move through the following steps:

  1. Before getting into the content of the document, look at it in a very general sense and ask basic questions. Consider the document’s type: “What kind of document are we looking at?” For example, for textual documents, is it a newspaper, letter, report? For artifacts, what material is this made of? For video, is it a propaganda film, cartoon, training video?
  2. Find unique characteristics of the document (which will vary depending on document type). Note any markings or special qualities. These characteristics will help students understand the document in context. For example: Are there any symbols, letterhead, handwritten versus typed text, stamps, seals, or notations? Is there a background, color, or tone? Are there facial expressions in photographs, or other telling features? Is there narration or special effects? Is there a key?
  3. Attempt to identify the creator and the content of the document. Break down the document by asking “Who, What, Where, When, Why and How?”
  4. Rephrase the document into plain language. Students should determine the content of the document and speculate for whom and why it was created. Help students understand the document in historical context.”

Research: There are several comprehensive guides to archival research online, including:



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Using archival material in your teaching and research

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