A new partnership between Stanford faculty and librarians is giving more undergraduate students hands-on opportunities to work with historical documents and artifacts during class, simulating what professional historians do in the real world.

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Stanford faculty and librarians are working together to modify the curriculum of large undergraduate courses to bring more students to the special collections and archives of the libraries on campus.

Stanford historian Tom Mullaney is leading the effort with Stanford University Libraries in adjusting the curriculum of several large courses in order to expose more students to special collections and archival materials available to them on campus.

The approach, which they call Massively Multiplayer Humanities, involves gathering course-themed archival sources and encouraging students to touch and examine the materials, using them to dive more deeply into historical events and to pose unique questions about different parts of history.

“This is a way to get students who might just take one history course during college to see and experience what it’s like to be an actual historian,” said Mullaney, an associate professor of Chinese history.

How it started

The idea for exposing larger classes to archival materials emerged from the work professors at Stanford are already doing with smaller classes, Mullaney said.

Trips to the Libraries’ special collections on campus have been a central part of teaching in advanced history and other humanities courses for a long time. But the students in those classes are often already set on majoring or minoring in the area of humanities and social sciences, and Mullaney wanted to find a way to expose the archives to the students in large history courses who are less likely to use them.

Humanities Center Fellow Amanda Cannata examines some of the World's Fair music that is part of the William R. and Louise Fielder Sheet Music Collection at Green Library.

Examining some of the World’s Fair music that is part of the William R. and Louise Fielder Sheet Music Collection at Green Library. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

“I was in a kind of a paradox,” Mullaney said. “The students who I wanted to expose to humanistic methods and the archival experience the most are in a larger classroom setting where that’s the most difficult to do.”

About a year ago, Mullaney approached Henry Lowood, a curator in the Stanford University Libraries, with the idea and the two clicked over their shared vision of scaling up students’ exposure to the archives.

“When students take a large history class, usually their experience of what it means to be a historian is listening to a lecture and reading books,” said Lowood, who curates the History of Science and Technology as well as the Film and Media collections at Stanford Libraries. “But they don’t get the experience of working with primary source materials, which is the bread and butter of a professional historian.”

The reality is that even most students of history and other subjects within the humanities don’t get exposed to primary sources until their third or fourth year of undergraduate studies.

“We need to figure out ways to incorporate the doing of history and the doing of humanities and social sciences much earlier in the process,” Mullaney said. “Because it is in the doing that people fall in love or they decide this isn’t for me.”

First try

In the winter quarter of 2015-16, Mullaney and Lowood piloted the new idea in the Science, Technology and Society course The Public Life of Science and Technology, bringing about 150 students in small sections to the special collections of Stanford’s Green Library.

The duo, with the support of their colleagues and John Willinsky, the director of the Science, Technology and Society program, picked out several archival pieces related to the world of early computing, video gaming and cybernetics. The items included a prototype of the first computer mouse, corporation documents from the beginning days of Apple and photographs of Bay Area arcade gaming parlors. Mullaney and Lowood also trained teams of teaching assistants to walk the students through the rules of the library and the archival sections.

Groups of about 15 students from the large class were then set free to explore the content and use it to pose educated questions about the history of technology in the context of the class.

“We’re trying to instill a felt understanding of how much creativity and research it takes to form a historical question,” Mullaney said. “The key is to normalize the uncertainty of working with primary sources. Sometimes your research doesn’t lead you anywhere, and it’s important to teach students that finding nothing is always just as productive as finding something.”

Once the quarter concluded, Mullaney knew the idea should be repeated again at other courses at Stanford.

“The papers that came out of that class were the most creative and analytical I’ve ever seen in my time at Stanford,” Mullaney said. In terms of the questions being raised, “You basically had sophomores and juniors operating at a level of master’s and PhD students.”


When third-year history doctoral candidate Rachel Midura was a junior at the University of Virginia, she got a grant to study German and Italian historical documents at the Austrian National Library in Vienna. Every day she got to walk through the doors of the 18th-century baroque building and sift through dusty papers that were hundreds of years old.

“It was an eye-opening experience for me,” said Midura, describing that time as formative for her as a young college student.

Midura is one of the teaching assistants for Mullaney’s History of Information: From Moveable Type to Machine Learning course in the upcoming spring quarter. She said she is excited to bring that same awe she feels while working with historical documents to more of her students.

The class Midura is helping with will be the fourth time Mullaney and Lowood are trying out the Massively Multiplayer Humanities lab. A winter quarter course, The History of Modern China, also will pilot the idea.

Midura said she has previously used digitized primary sources during discussion sections with students. While having historical archives available online is valuable, nothing compares to physically holding a delicate piece of parchment or an old hand-written letter.

“You can talk until you’re blue in the face and try to explain to a first-time student what history is and why it matters,” Mullaney said. “My feeling is: How about you go into the archives and then after you have those experiences, all of that uncertainty, all of that excitement, all of that boredom, then come back to me and then let’s talk about it. Otherwise, it’s like trying to describe to someone what it’s like to hike up a mountain or what it’s like to fall in love.”

The Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning provided a Faculty College grant to Mullaney and his colleagues to create scalable, project-based archival experiences for large-enrollment humanities courses. The initiative was also supported by Roberto Trujillo, Sarah Sussman, Ben Stone and Tim Noakes of Stanford University Libraries.

Media Contacts

Alex Shashkevich, Stanford News Service: (650) 497-4419, ashashkevich@stanford.edu