archival analysis

Proposal Memo due Sept. 29 / Rough Draft due Oct. 8 / Final Draft due Oct. 13

15% of final grade / Length: 3-5 pages


The next three assignments in our class are designed not only to give you a chance to practice crafting specific kinds of arguments but to carefully build a set of strong research skills. First, in the Archival Analysis paper, you will construct an argument from primary research by describing and analyzing artifacts from the University Archives. Second, in the Annotated Bibliography, you will generate a body of secondary research to supplement and support those primary sources. Finally, you will combine these efforts to write a proposal argument that brings your historical research to bear on a current problem facing our campus.

This is a chance to learn more about Penn State and the State College area as you develop an argument about a topic that genuinely interests you. Rather than beginning with a strong conviction and a sense of argument, we will start with a sense of curiosity. That said, keep all three steps in mind as you decide on a topic to research. Knowing that your final task is to write a proposal ought to help you brainstorm a topic. What problems face our campus or community today? How might a historical perspective help you understand that problem?


You will likely look through a number of artifacts on your visits to the archives. You will be able to use information from multiple sources in your paper, but I would like for you to highlight one or two of these artifacts in your paper. This could be a letter or memo, an official document or record, a handbook, notes from a personal file, a photograph, etc. Choose an artifact that really captures your attention and that your audience will, in turn, find interesting. Select a specific audience (in this case, your audience will likely be connected to Penn State) and use this piece of writing as a chance to inform them about your topic and your artifacts. As you develop your argument, think about how to make this information relevant, interesting, and important to a contemporary audience. Who needs to understand this history? Why? Essentially, your paper should reflect the value of primary sources—your audience should see where your information came from and why it matters. You will need to:

1)     Describe your chosen artifact(s). What exactly are you looking at? What information did you gather from your artifact?

2)     Evaluate its importance to our conception of Penn State history today. Why is it important that we understand the information that you uncovered?

3)     Analyze the content of your artifact in such a way that supports your evaluation of its importance. What is it about the artifact and its contents that make it valuable?

4)     Develop an argument about your artifact. While this project will ultimately build to an argument of proposal, your argument at this stage could take many forms. Are you persuading your audience that the artifact is, in fact, important? Are you making a larger argument about the way Penn State has changed over time? Are you using this piece of history to bring attention to a current issue or problem?

Don’t worry if you don’t have a specific audience/purpose/argument in mind before you begin the project. Dig into the research process, see what you can find, and then refine your ideas as you go along. Let your curiosity drive you.


Download the document here: Archival Analysis assignment sheet

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