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Bringing archives into the undergraduate classroom

February 26, 2018
A letter written by a soldier in World War II.

Image courtesy Jessica Showalter

A partnership between Penn State Altoona Library Director Bonnie Imler and history instructor Jared Frederick is giving undergraduate students hands-on experience working with historical archives. Their experience offers some strategies for librarians seeking to bring archives into the undergraduate classroom.

Students in Frederick’s fall 2017 HIST 112 course examined some of the library’s over 500 WWII-era letters as part of their introduction to public history, which Frederick describes as “the concept of sharing culture and the past through programming and techniques at historic sites, museums, libraries, and parks.” Each student chose one letter-writer and then followed him or her through the war. Later, they wrote biographical essays about their chosen letter-writer.

Imler says, “Many of these students had never worked with archives before. Connecting them with these primary documents lets the students be historians and do original research. Plus, since the letters were written by correspondents who were former Penn State Altoona students themselves, reading them helps today’s students engage with our university history and makes it personal.”

The Collection

Assorted World War II items from the Robert E. Eiche Collection.

Image courtesy Jessica Showalter

The letters are part of the library’s Robert E. Eiche collection. Eiche, for whom the library is named, served as Penn State Altoona’s first campus director from its founding in 1939 until 1968. When many of the campus’s students and faculty enlisted in the military during WWII, Eiche kept up correspondence with them. Their letters describe their training, deployment all over the world, and their struggles to reintegrate when they returned home after the war. Many of the letters express gratitude for Eiche’s continued correspondence and news from home throughout the war.

Imler worked with the Penn State Libraries Preservation, Conservation, and Digitization department to get the letters de-acidified and catalogued. Former student Kallie Sheets and current staff member Jessica Showalter entered metadata about the letters into a database, recording information such as the letter’s author, the author’s military affiliation, the letter’s place of origin, and an abstract of its contents. The database allows researchers to quickly search the hundreds of letters.

Hands-on research

Students visited the Historical Archives room and examined the letters as well as related ephemera including V-mail, Christmas cards, and photographs. Most of the letters are hand-written, so Frederick’s students had the opportunity to decipher and transcribe the manuscripts.

Imler says, “They learned some strategies for handling and interpreting physical materials, and they got a feel for the environment of a reading room.” Frederick praised the physical space. He says, “The recent creation of our archive room in the library provided a wonderful work space ideal for concentration and research.”

Using digital archives

Imler also taught the students how to track down more information about the letter-writers using several of the library’s databases of digitized archival materials. Frederick says, “Many library databases were of immeasurable assistance. Newspaper Archives provided much material regarding the personal, local details of service members researched by my students, including some other notes they sent home. offered the more bureaucratic perspective of the war, giving enlistment information, pension benefits, burial details, and the occasional photograph.”

Making student research visible

The biographical essays written by Frederick’s students are now part of the Eiche WWII Letters collection. Imler says, “Including the biographical essays with the letters will serve as a valuable resource for researchers in the future. Plus, it gave these students an opportunity to write for an audience beyond the classroom and to contribute to our university’s legacy.”

Looking forward

Imler and Frederick’s partnership is ongoing. Frederick is planning to use reproductions of the letters in an upcoming exhibit to commemorate the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019, which Imler will promote with an interactive display in the library. Imler’s display will allow patrons to examine physical copies of the letters as well as explore a digital exhibit that will be customized to the patron’s interests.

Looking forward, Frederick adds, “Ideally, I would like to see the letters in some book form–either transcriptions or converted into a narrative. I also think the story of the letters would make for a compelling documentary, which I think WPSU could and should produce.”

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