Redefining Research in the Archives

Archival Research

How an undergraduate summer research course revealed
new ways for students to engage with CMU history

The Carnegie Mellon University Archives can be a great resource for classes from any discipline researching topics connected to CMU history. But this past summer, engaging with the Archives was the explicit goal of Dietrich Professor of Science, Technology, and Society Jay D. Aronson’s summer research course. In the course, students worked closely with the Libraries’ archivists to explore the history of policing and safety on campus. They not only documented the story told by the records held in the Libraries’ collection — they also identified gaps in the Archives that are common in historical research.

The class elevated the Archives’ recent efforts to increase representation in its collections to better reflect Carnegie Mellon’s diverse past as an institution, and was also directly tied to current events happening around the country. “The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 created the conditions for people to ask questions about relations law enforcement, race and inequality in ways they never had before,” Aronson said. “I wanted to give students a chance to think through these issues in a meaningful way at a level that is both approachable and relevant to them, and this was a natural starting point.”

Aronson designed the course in collaboration with the Archives and the Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence and Educational Innovation’s Innovative Models for Undergraduate Research (IMUR) program, and began with a few weeks in the classroom exploring archival practices and access tools. Then, students moved to the Archives Reading Room, located on the second floor of Hunt Library, and the real work began. Using finding aids, they identified potentially relevant boxes of reports, newsletters, meeting minutes and more from groups and organizations around campus. Archivists were there to guide them through the process.

“CMU’s archivists took great care to instruct us about proper procedures, how to find relevant materials, how the online search system worked, and what to do if or when we got stuck and needed help,” said Alivia McGown, a senior social and political history major. “I was endlessly grateful for the in-depth explanations and instructions.”

For Aronson, the students’ undeniable enthusiasm was evidence of the course’s value. “Each student was required to spend nine hours in the Archives, but everyone ultimately ended up far exceeding that minimum because they were so excited to be engaged in the process of actually doing history rather than just reading it in books and articles,” he said. “I am not much of a picture-taker, but the students’ excitement was so palpable that I pulled out my phone to document it, which is something I’ve only done a few times in my nearly 20 years of teaching.”

The process demystified the Archives for undergraduates who had never had a chance to access the records before and showed them how rewarding engaging with historic records can be. However, frustration was also part of the process, as students discovered gaps in what had been recorded and collected. One topic that proved very difficult to illuminate was how police historically interacted with students with disabilities.

“Not only do we have nothing to connect disability to policing — we have next to nothing on the history of disability and accessibility on campus at all,” said Community Collections Processing Archivist Crystal Johnson. “The Office of Disability Resources is fairly new, and it’s hard to track who was tasked with handling disability resources across campus before it was created.”

The class made archivists aware of this gap, and they’re now working to find artifacts that can help fill in the blanks. They’ve reached out to people like Everett Tademy, who worked with the Office of Human Resources and served as a counselor with the Carnegie Mellon Action Project and eventually director of Equal Opportunity Services during his 45-year career at Carnegie Mellon. They’ve also met with Catherine Getchell, the director of the Office of Disability Resources, and University Architect Bob Reppe, to start building relationships that can bring them closer to the missing materials.

Topics like the history of Title IX, reports of sexual assault and harassment, and the intersection of race and policing proved equally hard to find materials about. In addition, there’s very little available to reference about when the campus police force became armed, and why. “The class spoke to an officer about his long career at CMU and how he remembered this change came about, but we didn’t find any documentation about when that happened,” Project Archivist Emily Davis said. “You would think that there would have been some conversation on campus about it — but we haven’t been able to find any evidence.”

“I think every Archive has absences, and we go about highlighting them or hiding them in different ways,” University Archivist Julia Corrin added. “But this is a really important civic lesson for students to understand — that not all information exists, and not everything you want to know is there at the end of a Google search. When people are doing research or writing histories, it’s crucial to think about what they might be lacking.”

As their final deliverables, students wrote blog posts exploring their experiences. They also created a database of the information they found, which was used as a foundation for the ethics, history, and public policy major’s capstone class that Aronson taught in the fall of 2022. It will serve as a resource guide to others interested in this history and is something that future classes can build on as they research further. These end products show just how flexible experiences in the Archives can be depending on what a class hopes to achieve.

“Faculty from across campus can bring students into the Archives, even if it’s not for a history course, and even if their end goal isn’t a 40-page research paper,” Corrin said. “For example, we hosted a digital archives and storytelling class with the Integrative Design, Arts, and Technology network (IDeATe) for several years, and served as a resource for a contemporary soundscapes class from the College of Fine Arts. There are so many ways to use our resources, and so many ways we can tailor different learning outcomes for individual class needs.”

For more information about the diverse ways classes can get involved with the Archives, reach out to set up an appointment, or stop by during open hours on Thursdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

by Sarah Bender, Communications Coordinator

Photos by Jay D. Aronson