How to teach history through school artefacts
Schools are notorious accumulators of old stuff. This may include broken equipment, ancient exam papers and anything that someone has considered worth keeping “just in case”. But sometimes, a junkheap can contain treasure.
We recently unearthed a collection of old school papers in a projection booth at our school in Guernsey. Some were old enough to be of real interest: school magazines dating back to 1926 and headteachers’ log books dating back to 1885. The school decided to preserve these as a historical resource. The materials were carefully sorted and organised into archive boxes in the library with their contents listed and added to the online catalogue.
The collection represents a genuine primary source for historians and as such gives students the opportunity to do original research. It is especially valuable that the collection covers the years of both World Wars.
The history department has used the school log books for project work, for analysis of sources and for encouraging inference.
While many schools will not have access to records dating back quite so far, you might be surprised what you can find once you start digging. School artefacts help bring the past to life for budding historians, but they also demonstrate the role that we all play as curators of today’s ephemera.
When looking at sources, it is important to remind students that it is not an exercise in judging past attitudes, but rather seeing how the world has changed. Any temptation to laugh is easily corrected by imagining how posterity would view us if and when our records turn up – possibly as a dusty box of USB sticks in a corner of a school in 2095.
Anna Quick is a librarian at The Grammar School and Sixth Form Centre, Guernsey.