Publication Date

May 1, 1991

Perspectives Section


AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education



For over twenty years the history department at Haverford College has required all undergraduate majors to take a junior year course called the Seminar on Evidence. In it they each undertake two investigations, one of an artifact, the other, and the more important one, producing a scholarly edition of an unpublished manuscript. At first this counted only as half a semester course, but it has become a regular course, an important component of the major program. (The early years of this endeavor were briefly described by John McKenna in “Original Historical Manuscripts and the Undergraduate,” Perspectives, March 1978). It is now a large fall semester class, restricted of necessity to history majors, involving close collaboration between the whole department and an excellent, enthusiastic library staff. (For a more detailed report of this project featuring the role of reference librarians, see Margaret Schaus, “Hands-on-History,” College and Research Libraries News (1990).

Each fall reference librarians respond to questions like:

“Who was Mrs. H. Orr-Ewing and how did she know Japanese crown prince Akihito?”

“Why would people have needed a darning egg with a tight fitting metal ring?”

“Can I get copies of an abolitionist newspaper published in Kansas?”

“How can I find out about the introduction of merino sheep into the United States?”

The seminar itself originated in 1969 in part in response to a student revolt against the traditional comprehensive examinations, and in part from the faculty’s desire to introduce the students to the real excitement of archival research.

The artifact assignment, the lesser of the two projects, was intended mainly to show students how objects can be used for historical purposes. It turned out that the assignment had many useful side effects, including making all the majors think across a broad spectrum of the discipline (social, economic, material, cultural) and handle things that could turn out to be from anywhere in the world. Veterans of the course have donated some objects, including wooden Ethiopian cowbells and obscure medical instruments. Artifacts allow the students to exercise their investigative and deductive powers in libraries and the wider world—hardware stores, antique shops, auto repair shops, and obscure museums.

Students choose their artifact from a display containing about one third more items than there are students. The only rule is that it must be unknown to the student when it is selected. The student is given the name of the donor. He or she can then ask questions about the provenance of the object, but the donors can only confirm, not reveal, the identity of the object. Combining physical evidence of the shape, material, and markings with information from the donor, students have enough clues to go to the library for old tool and antique guides, trade catalogs, and special directories enabling them to contact museum curators, dealers, and skilled craftspeople. (For artifacts as a primary source for assignment to students, see Historians/Artifacts/Learners: Working Papers, edited by Susan K. Nichols, National Endowment for the Humanities, 1982. Available as ERIC document ED 216947.)

Once the chase begins, the library and special collections staff presents a class session emphasizing research strategies. Since two of the librarians are themselves trained historians, this is much more than the usual display of reference books and explanation of the LC system. Handouts summarize such mechanics of library use as locating periodicals, interlibrary loan procedures, and use of computer searches. The librarians’ goals for this seminar are more numerous and far-reaching than they would be for the typical term paper assignment. Students need more than an introduction to the literature of one discipline because they must work comfortably in various fields, use a wide range of reference sources, and go beyond the usual monographs and journals to such primary sources as patent records, letters, and eyewitness accounts, and to scholars, collectors, and other presumably knowledgeable individuals. To accomplish their goals, students need a creative and flexible approach to research; they must think widely, not restricting themselves to one narrow line of reasoning, one subject approach, or one reference title. They must be willing to change direction and adjust their strategy if new evidence suggests a different interpretation or if promising leads appear in an unexpected place.

The detective work involved has given the course a widespread reputation for puzzling people to the point of distraction. Students come hoping to dazzle everyone with their deductive powers, but also apprehensive of complete and abysmal failure. Both projects in the seminar end with a “show and tell” session in which students make brief oral presentations and are questioned by the faculty and each other about their research and conclusions. Under these circumstances there are great opportunities for making a name for themselves one way or another.

The papers students prepare on their artifacts include description of the object, an outline of the investigative strategies pursued, and then as the main point of the exercise, historical analysis. Explanation, rather than mere identification, is the main goal of the report. The object reflects contemporary material conditions and social values, and must be made to speak for the society that fashioned and used it. What, for example, do whalebone stays from an eighteenth-century corset say about women’s roles, health concerns, distinctions of social class, large-scale fishing, or fashion and the garment industry.

Students have about a month to complete the first project, then move on to work on documents. Haverford is unusually fortunate for an undergraduate college in having in its library two large document collections: the Quaker Collection, containing documents relating to the Society of Friends, family papers, and journals from the seventeenth century onwards as well as other materials; the other, the Charles Roberts Autograph Letters Collection, given to the College in 1902, has grown from 12,000 to more than 20,000 items over the years. The Roberts Collection ranges over every field of endeavor from the sixteenth century on, with many important letters from major figures.

Every member of the history department chooses documents for the seminar, selecting those that seem to offer something solid for students to work on. Again each fall there are about a third more documents than there are history majors in the course, so there is some range of choice for each student. Most of the documents selected are letters, but students have also worked on wills, contracts, diaries, and even a 1799 safe-conduct pass signed by Haitian leader Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Over the course of the preceding year the manuscript cataloguer works closely with faculty, planning the sort of documents that might prove useful in a student search. Some promising letters may be purchased to add to current choices. Having faculty and a manuscript person fluent in several languages has allowed us to offer a steady supply of foreign language selections. This year documents in French, Russian, and German (with some Latin phrases) received scholarly editing and translation: two letters in French from the Revolutionary era, a letter from Catherine the Great, and a Reformation-era prophecy in German. A cataloguer’s sharp eye assures a rich selection of future choices.

Before selecting their documents, students attend an evening seminar in the library where the history faculty and special collections staff briefly introduce the documents selected. The library and special collections staff again make a detailed presentation on archival protocol, index, and reference materials for unpublished sources, and the main types of reference materials available to the scholar working on primary material. The library’s bookbinder discusses paper and other physical aspects of document analysis. Special Collections staff acclimate students to the care and handling of rare materials. As they do for the artifact exercise, the librarians have prepared a written handout with lists of sources and practical illustrations of their use.

When students select their documents, they receive a photocopy. The original is kept on reserve in the Special Collections, where it may be consulted for physical characteristics and checked for anything that may not be clear on the photocopy. Students then have about six weeks to complete the editorial work, which includes a complete transcription with an introduction indicating the document’s provenance, physical characteristics, biographical details about the writer, and a brief explanation of the document’s context and historical significance. Footnotes are used to explain all references in the letter that are not self-evident, and comment on any errors or other textual problems. In at least one case a student has proved that a letter in the autograph collection was in fact a forgery—in this case a letter purporting to be from Jonathan Swift.

The history faculty gives considerable attention to reading these papers, each of which is read by at least two members of the department. One person generally reads all of them for form and consistency. Another person in a relevant field will read for content, analytical acumen, and bibliography. The department insists that this is not a typical workbook exercise in which the answers are known in advance, but a genuine encounter with historical evidence so far not available to the world at large in print. It demands, therefore, a high standard of accuracy and editorial exactness. By doing this kind of work the students are, after all, doing what professional historians do all the time, and to that extent the students are not pupils but colleagues in this enterprise. Over the years about a dozen of these papers have been published in various journals or collections of essays. (For example, from the object assignment: Michael A. Sisk, “Corn Husking Culture,” Small Farmer’s Journal (1988); from the document assignment, Matthew Levinger, “‘No Old Man’s Sorrow’: A New Ruskin Letter,” Burlington Magazine (1983); and Paul M. Kelly, “Thomas Kelly Encounters Nazi Germany: His Letter from Strasbourg, 1938,” in J. William Frost and John Moore, eds., Seeking the Light: Essays in Quaker History in Honor of Edwin Bronner (1986) All of the papers, except for the very few which for one reason or another do not meet the basic standards set for the course, are duplicated and put on permanent file in the Special Collections along with the documents, where they become part of the scholarly record, available to others who work in the college archives. Juniors often find themselves looking up seniors who worked on documents in a similar field as theirs, pumping them for help and useful tips.

Willing staff makes a difference. Handwriting alone can daunt a first time researcher while translation and transcription can produce dozens of questions from a single student over a month’s time. Support from the special collections staff, their familiarity with Quaker principles and language, helps students avoid pitfalls and carry a project through to a successful conclusion.

Student response to the course has been overwhelmingly positive from the beginning. In most cases it allows juniors at the beginning of their major in history to work fairly closely on very specific scholarly problems with one or more members of the department. From the faculty’s viewpoint there is no doubt that it has vastly improved the level of research and writing represented in regular term papers for other courses.

The very success of the course has produced problems of its own, not the least of which is the popularity of the history major. Students often are enticed by the investigation to go too far and leave little time to reflect and analyze their findings. There are often problems for undergraduates getting access to other research collections. In the three years since the library staff has joined with the history faculty in teaching the seminar, the demand on special collections, reference, and interlibrary loan services has stretched its resources to bursting. The library discovered a number of gaps in its collection which have had to be filled, particularly in the area of material culture.

The close collaboration between the history faculty and the librarians has been a particular benefit from this course. The historians get expert help in teaching a course, the librarians get to work with students in an atmosphere that earns them trust and respect. The students see firsthand the collective process of scholarly inquiry, and have as undergraduates the unusual opportunity of seeing a little of what goes on behind the footnotes in the monographs they read. Students who have gone on to graduate school in history have found they have a leg up on most beginning graduate students, but students headed in other directions, including law, business, and medicine, have been equally grateful for the training in research technique and bibliography.

If you wish to develop your own course on evidence:

  1. Assess your library holdings. Unpublished documents alone are relevant for the editing project. The few times faculty inadvertently chose documents already published, they spoiled the project for the student, since a student may make an original contribution to scholarship only if the work of editing is not already done. On the other hand, poorly edited letters may make good selections since the student project may yield new information and a superior outcome. Documents need not concern notable people or for that matter fit an epistolary model. Ships’ ladings, inventories of goods, and marriage contracts may be used. An eighteenth-century Philadelphia property transfer for ten peppercorns produced a worthwhile report in 1989.
  2. Assess your potential for collecting objects. While this does not take a large budget, it may take time in secondhand stores and attics. Someone on the history faculty ought to be knowledgeable about material culture.
  3. History faculty, reference librarians, and special collections staff must meet well before the course begins to divide responsibilities and check reference materials. Our Sears Roebuck catalogues from the turn of the century are well worn; the object assignment could not succeed without them. Other reference works on the history of technology have been added to the library to support the course.
  4. The selection process for documents, which falls to history faculty members, is crucial to the success of the course and requires some thought and effort well before the course begins. Assess whether there is unpublished or published material relevant to the document, whether library holdings suffice, and whether interlibrary loans or nearby institutions will support the search.
  5. Alert librarians in special collections, in local museums, and in historical societies. You may wish to involve these people in the development of ground rules. Some acknowledgement or thank you, preferably from the student, is in order if special demands are made on individuals or institutions outside the college or university.
  6. Accompany the two projects with shared readings which will be discussed in small groups. E.H. Carr, What is History? (Knopf, 1962) is an old standby. Recently we have used James West Davidson and Mark Hamilton Lytle, After the Fact: The Art of Historical Detection (Knopf, 1986, 2nd ed.) as a basis for discussion. One reference work on editing should be available to all to minimize technical problems. We have used Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff, The Modern Researcher (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977, 3rd ed.) as an ultimate reference on citation and style.
  7. Set aside faculty time for consultation. Our students meet together in small or large groups eight times for three hours over the semester. They meet individually with experts from the faculty, the library, and elsewhere many more times. This may not be as onerous as it appears. Faculty will be consulted for their expertise on subjects they enjoy discussing. Students use the time before and after class, walking to the library, etc., to good purpose. However, be warned that a loquacious student may apprise you of every step taken along the way.
  8. Two evaluations with written comments take time at the end of the semester. Department honors at Haverford weights the grade in the Seminar on Evidence heavily.
  9. One last note: We are urged today to teach the difference between genuine research and plagiarism to students who may not be able to distinguish between the two. A fairly detailed outline of what is expected in the object research paper and the document edition can teach students the difference between their own findings and those of the secondary works they have consulted. It is difficult (but of course far from impossible) to “borrow” another’s phrases or arguments when all information included in the paper must relate specifically to the object or document researched.

We are indebted to Emma Lapsansky, Curator; Elisabeth Potts Brown; and Diana Franzusoff-Peterson of Special Collections, Haverford College, Magill Library, for their additions.

John Spielman and Susan Stuard are professors of history and Margaret Schaus is a reference librarian at Haverford College.