Digging in Your Own Backyard: Archives in the Music History Classroom

James Ryan O'Leary, Danielle Ward-Griffin


Although the study of archival material is often the province of graduate students and professional researchers, bringing such objects into the undergraduate classroom can offer students new and beneficial ways of thinking about history and historiography. This essay argues that, unlike texts, objects contain a material, temporal component that can be mobilized toward pedagogical ends. First, when encountering physical objects, students are confronted with the object’s past use and must learn to situate the object within a thick cultural context. Second, since many of these objects are obscure and may not have a clear provenance, students cannot rely upon standard or pre-fabricated historical narratives; instead, they must themselves create historical arguments to frame the object. Third, we argue that the rituals involved in handling archival objects defamiliarize them, allowing for acts of historical imagination that can change students’ attitudes toward the process of gathering evidence. Ultimately, we believe that such kinds of experiences change the classroom experience by stressing, not what is familiar or comfortable, but what is unknown, thus encouraging students to approach the reading and writing of history with a critical mindset.


Music; archives; pedagogy; microhistory; materiality

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ISSN 2155-109X