Evaluate What You Don’t Understand: Teaching Practical Skills in the Archives

Sarah Ponichtera


As we head into sum­mer, many of us are send­ing stu­dents into the archives for the first time, encour­ag­ing them to explore new sources and famil­iar­ize them­selves with how archives work. Oth­ers of us are begin­ning to plan our fall cours­es, and con­sid­er­ing how to incor­po­rate archival skill-build­ing into our class­es. Here, Sarah Ponichtera offers an activ­i­ty she cre­at­ed, using mate­ri­als in YIVO’s archive; it can be adapt­ed for oth­er archival collections. 

In geveb pub­lish­es ped­a­gog­i­cal mate­ri­als along with reflec­tions from teach­ers. This work­sheet was gen­er­ous­ly shared with In geveb by Sarah Ponichtera. We want you to use it in what­ev­er way best aids your teach­ing. If you wish to alter or add to it, please make note of this in your new work­sheet, and please keep the orig­i­nal attri­bu­tion. You may send ques­tions or com­ments to the cre­ator through us:[email protected]. Down­load a PDF here.

In the summer of 2014, looking to expand its audience to those who use Yiddish professionally, YIVO held multiday seminars on archival skills and pedagogy following the annual Uriel Weinreich Program in Yiddish Language, Literature, and Culture. The archival skills seminar was meant to attract both scholars who had attended the summer program and wished to conduct archival research in Yiddish, and individuals who knew no Yiddish, but wanted to evaluate Yiddish-language archival materials (including librarians and archivists as well as scholars in other fields). In the end, the group included almost exclusively summer program attendees, as well as a few volunteers in the archives. Seminar offerings included introductions to Yiddish reference works, classes on Yiddish orthography and research methodology, handwriting workshops, and introductions to the idiosyncrasies of Hebrew dates and Yiddish names. Since I had been working with YIVO as an archivist for two years, and had teaching experience from my graduate school days, then-Director of Education Jennifer Young asked me to assist in developing the program.

For the last day of the program, I developed an extended archival exercise to wrap up the program and give the students a chance to put their new skills to work. In developing this exercise, I was inspired by the ReSource Room activities in the Boeing Learning Center at the National Archives in Washington, which I had visited as part of the Modern Archives Institute. There, they offer tours for students which allow them to interact with extremely realistic facsimiles of documents, encouraging them to accomplish limited versions of actual research work and finding answers to questions that are posed for them. These activities seemed to me a great introduction to what doing research in an archive is really like. The exercise takes away the pressure of formulating one’s own research questions and methodologies, as one must in actual research, allowing the student to focus on the challenge of finding particular information in all the messiness of its original context. It also avoids the frustration of seeking information that simply isn’t there, which is all too common in primary source research, and provides a rewarding experience of archival work for a beginning student.

I structured the closing exercise for the YIVO archival skills program as a scavenger hunt. We split up students into groups of four to five, and the groups had to proceed through several stations that were set up. Each station presented a different archival resource, and required students to find specific information in that resource. There were photographs, posters, a Leksikon entry, a finding aid in Yiddish, and a handwritten document. I developed the exercise around the papers of Genia Silkes, a collection I was processing at the time. I had access to the original Yiddish finding aid to her papers, which I had been translating in in the course of my work, and I chose materials from the collection that suited the pedagogical goals of each station in the exercise. I deliberately chose documents in both Yiddish and Polish, hoping that everyone would encounter something they could not read, since that is a very common experience working with multilingual collections such as those at YIVO. My hope was that they would figure out how to leverage the language they did understand, to evaluate what they could not.

Students received worksheets guiding them to find particular information at each station. For example, at the Leksikon station, they had to first locate the entry—itself sometimes no easy task! Then they had to track down Silkes’ birth date, discover where she lived when the entry was published, and go into the bibliographic information to discover where she published. Finally, they had to identify the author of the article itself (which requires looking at the initials at the end of the article, then checking at the beginning of the book to find out the author’s full name). The intention was to raise students’ awareness of the many aspects of a Leksikon entry, as well as to give them tools to look more deeply into what they find there.

The goal of this exercise was to teach students to use these research materials accurately and strategically. Rather than getting bogged down in every detail, they were encouraged to move quickly to identify what they were looking at and evaluate its usefulness to them—just as they would have to do in an actual research project, where time is often limited. To encourage this aim, it was structured as a race! The group that was able to find out the information needed at each station first won a prize—a set of YIVO postcards. There were also prizes for runners-up.

This ended up being a very lively and fun way to wrap up the program. If I did it again, I would spend more time designing a discussion at the end to solidify what students learned. We had a free-from discussion at the end, but it would be even better to have a more structured discussion where students reflected on what was easy for them, what was difficult, and what they learned about working with archival materials.

Ponichtera, Sarah. “Evaluate What You Don't Understand: Teaching Practical Skills in the Archives.” In geveb, June 2016:
Ponichtera, Sarah. “Evaluate What You Don't Understand: Teaching Practical Skills in the Archives.” In geveb (June 2016): Accessed Jun 16, 2024.


Sarah Ponichtera

Sarah Ponichtera is the Assistant Dean for Special Collections & the Gallery at Seton Hall University in South Orange, NJ.