On a crisp fall afternoon, 11 students gathered around a conference table in Boatwright Library. In front of each student was a cardboard file box stuffed to the brim with letters, memos, brochures, and photographs, all belonging to Watkins Abbitt, ’31, a Virginia congressman from 1948 to 1973.
Their task? To comb through the boxes to select items to create a digital collection that told Abbitt’s story.
The digital archiving project was just one indication that The Historian’s Workshop would not be a typical history course. “The history department wanted a course that brings students into the making of history outside of classrooms and scholarly books,” says Nicole Sackley, associate professor of history and the course’s creator and instructor. “I wanted to connect students into archival work earlier, and to introduce them to digital history.”
Sackley’s course, which she co-taught with campus archivist Lynda Kachurek, integrated readings and discussions of archives, digital research and collections, and museum exhibits. The group worked with campus resources including Special Collections, the Digital Scholarship Lab, and Digital Collections.
They also visited the Library of Virginia, the Virginia Historical Society, and the U.S. Holocaust Museum, in Washington, DC. “The trips have enabled us to analyze the use of space in museums, the role archivists play, and the role of these institutions for surrounding communities,” says Matt McKenna, ’16.
Those field trips led to some fascinating class discussions. “We had a discussion about how do you represent history through objects, the question of choice and selection, and how you tell a story,” Sackley says.
Their discussion was put into practice when processing the Abbitt papers, which have been part of the University’s archives for nearly 40 years but have not been processed. With guidance from Kachurek, each student examined their box and was charged with selecting objects that they felt were historically significant.
“I felt a bit nervous about being part of the first group to dig in to the collection,” says George Washburne, ’15, “but I became less anxious and more intrigued as we got further along.”
The students found a variety of materials including documents relating to school desegregation, which Abbitt opposed; letters from constituents; personal correspondence; and even photographs. They were excited to interact directly with history.
“There is a marked difference between seeing a document online and experiencing it firsthand,” says Emeline Blevins, ’17. “It made the past and the people who wrote them more real, and it gave people who would otherwise be anonymous a little spot in history.”
Grace DeVries, ’16, also describes a connection to the content. “I think everyone feels a sense of ownership over their box, and the documents they’ve added.”
In addition to selecting their own objects, the students worked together to create a cohesive collection. “Initially, we focused largely on Abbitt’s engagement in the aftermath of Brown v. Board and the controversy about school desegregation,” Sackley says. “We found lots of letters about segregation, but lots of letters about other topics, too. What the collection seems to have become is one about the ways in which ordinary Virginians connect to national politics.”
“This class helps show students that history is deeply collaborative,” Sackley said. “We worked based on the work of those who worked before us, we are in constant communication and engagement with other types of scholars, and understanding and interpreting history in a way that is a deeply collaborative effort.”
The students appreciated the opportunity to explore different facets of the history profession.
“Instead of just learning about history, crafting arguments, and defending them, this course enabled us to choose objects of history and then proceed to become historians, analyzing why a document was written, to whom, and for what purpose,” says McKenna.