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Bringing History to the People

The National Archives and Records Administration, this nation’s filing cabinet, has the three part mission of protecting, maintaining, and making available the valuable permanent records of the federal government. This last component, that of making available, is the inspiration for two outreach efforts that bring programs directly to the people.

Volunteer docents have discovered over the years that nothing brings history alive so much as touching the documents that shaped it. Reading about the revolutionary war soldier is one thing, but reading General George Washington’s orders to the troops, studying the muster rolls (not “mustard rolls,” as some of our fifth graders refer to them), and tracing the battles on the battle maps is something entirely different. Everyone knows there was a Declaration of Independence, but how many have heard its eloquence read aloud by a ninety-year-old resident of senior citizen housing?

The National Archives offers both community and school outreach workshops. The community outreach programs are designed primarily for adult groups, while the school workshops target groups from fifth grade through the first two years of college. Each of the offerings is based on the premise that the use of documents in studying history should not only be educational, but entertaining as well.

Community Outreach

Community outreach programs include general topics related to the mission of the Archives, including a general introduction to the Archives and slide shows that showcase current exhibitions. The specialized offerings, all of which are illustrated with full-sized facsimile documents, not only cover the 200 plus years of American history, but also reflect the richness and backgrounds of the presenters. A docent defines his or her own topic, assembles documents that best tell the story, prepares a workshop or presentation, and shares his or her enthusiasm for the topic with the appropriate audience. Program titles have ranged from Genealogy and Family History to Federal Involvement in Great U.S. Disasters, and from Kindness in American History to Musical Memories at the Archives. Docents continually update their programs to reflect current events.

Over the years, the docents have developed certain practical guidelines for their presentations. The use of facsimile documents from the Archive’s vast holdings is central to every outreach program, making it desirable to limit the size of the audience. A group of not more than fifty persons is the ideal audience. Some docents prefer to distribute copies of the documents that are being studied, so that audience members can examine them in small groups while the docent points out important aspects. Others prefer to read portions of the documents aloud and make them available at the end of the meeting for closer examination. Even if a listener has heard about President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, or has his own vivid memory of it, holding a facsimile copy of the actual draft, with the words “world history” scratched out and “day of infamy” inserted, is a special thrill.

Each docent develops the most comfortable and effective presentation, and many prepare a presentation in even greater detail than necessary so that colleagues can present the topic. After a program has been presented, the host organization is asked to evaluate both program and presenter. The docent is encouraged to complete an evaluation form as well.

The Community Outreach program of the National Archives has clearly created a win-win situation. The Archives benefits from the favorable and widespread publicity the program attracts. Community organizations gain from the entertaining and intellectual programs they are able to offer their membership. And, not least of all, docent volunteers get the feeling of satisfaction that comes from knowing they are filling an important need in the community.

School Outreach

The Volunteer and Tour Office has worked closely with teachers and curriculum specialists to develop several structured school workshops using a selection of full-sized facsimile documents relating to current classroom activities. Unlike the outreach programs that are driven primarily by the interests of the presenting docents, school outreach docents take their cues from classroom teachers. The facsimile documents selected for school workshops enhance and enrich the students’ classroom work and encourage them to conduct research using primary sources.

Each August, information about the school outreach programs is sent to elementary, secondary, and high schools in the area. In the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, the teaching of American history begins in the fifth and sixth grades. Interest in our workshops is not limited to this age group, however. Teachers of older students also express interest in enriching their courses. Even teachers of other subject areas who find working with original documents important request our workshops.

Whenever possible, docents are assigned to schools in their home area, and they in turn contact the teacher to discuss the workshop date, class reading level, and the documents to be used. This important information allows the docent to tailor the workshop to the needs and interests of the students.

Pre-visit materials are sent in advance of the workshop so that the teacher and students are acquainted with the National Archives, its professional terminology, and the specific workshop they will receive. Ideally, students learn new vocabulary words and study questions relating to pictures or documents so they are better prepared to participate in the workshop during the docent’s visit.

Typically, the decent will provide a number of facsimile documents and photographs relating to the specific workshop. Workshops with titles such as Westward Expansion, Declaration of Independence, and Immigration and Family History rely on the vast holdings of the National Archives to enrich the students’ basic knowledge and appreciation for research with primary sources. Pairs of students study documents, complete questionnaire worksheets related to the documents, and then discuss their responses with classmates. The lesson becomes student-driven and no two classes are alike. Docents must be flexible, often making adjustments to keep the students’ attention and their conversation on-track.

These school outreach programs have increased in popularity as the funding for buses and field trips has become more scarce. In an average year, outreach workshops serve between five and six thousand students. This represents a lot of work and dedication on the part of the docent corps. The reward comes when docents receive letters from students talking about what they enjoyed most about their workshop. Many express a keen interest in visiting the National Archives and conducting research there someday.

With the growing popularity of cyberspace, details of both Community and School Outreach programs are now posted on the National Archives’ homepage on the World Wide Web. As increased visibility results in an explosion of requests, NAVA docents will rise to ever greater challenges of bringing history to the people.

Betty Moore, Mary Flitcroft and Dena Greenstein are docents serving the National Archives, in Washington, D.C. Ms. Moore is chair of the Community Outreach Committee at the Archives and also senses as a docent at William Paca House in Annapolis. MD. Ms. Flitcroft has been a volunteer docent at the Archives for eight years and is the past chair of the School Outreach Committee. Ms. Greenstein is the current president of the National Archives Volunteer Association (NAVA) and leads behind-the-scene tours for National Archives visitors.

Moore, Betty, Mary Flitcroft, and Dena Greenstein. “Bringing History to the People,” The Docent Educator 6.1 (Autumn 1996): 14-15.


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