Bringing Student Voices into the University Archives:
 A Student Organization Documentation Initiative Case Study

In Brief

The undergraduate student experience has long been poorly and selectively captured by university archives. Though student narratives have always been essential for creating a complete history of the university, current nationwide student protests have made these voices all the more important to capture. As students engage in activism, regarding issues relevant to student life and wellbeing such as Title IX violations, tuition hikes, and racism on and off campus, college and university archives must go to additional lengths to document these activities. A student organization documentation initiative, focused on actively seeking and informing student donors, can assist in filling these archival gaps. In the six-step iterative process, archivists would begin with a survey of their collections and their community. Contacted through various means of outreach, student organizations would engage in discussions focused on introductory archival instruction and donation interests and concerns. Then, following formal and informal evaluation, archivists would reflect on and rework the initiative. In its initial iteration, the documentation initiative has successfully solicited donations from 21% of the student organizations at Washington State University Vancouver. This article reflects on the project’s design, successes, and failures in its first year. Additionally, it looks forward to the iterations to come.

by Jenifer Becker


Student narratives have long been an underrepresented voice within college and university archives. The last couple of decades have seen a rise in archival projects and scholarship geared towards bringing these voices in. Despite the recent advocacy by archivists, the erasure of the student narrative continues to be an issue. The need for increased advocacy, outreach, and donor solicitation has become all the more apparent as students have come forward to demand change following tuition hikes, Title IX violations regarding sexual assault and harassment mishandlings, and incidences of racism and racial microaggressions on and off campus.1 Student activism has made way for a wave of new student organizations and new collaborations and coalitions between existing student organizations. Created within a movement, these coalitions and organizations may be as enduring as the Black student organizations which came to be in the late 1960s. However, they may also exit the campus scene as quickly as they arrived. These records – already struggling from the ephemeral nature of a student’s brief tenure – have an added urgency and uncertainty. Beyond creating an increased imperative to document student work, student activism has also created an increased need to do so ethically and with care. As a traditionally hidden department, university archives must work harder to show themselves as allies as students question administrative policy. A documentation initiative actively engaging student organizations presents the possibility to bring in these challenging student narratives.

The six-step iterative student organization documentation initiative outlined in this case study includes surveying, initial contact, discussion, evaluation, reflection, and reworking. First, collections are surveyed for potential gaps. Beyond the collections, the campus is also surveyed for present campus climate and possible allies in this work. Then, various forms of outreach are employed to make initial contact. When contact is successfully made, students meet for a discussion which is part introduction to the archives and part donor conversation. In these meetings, students have the opportunity to discuss the work they are doing on campus, the materials they are creating, and the concerns they might have with donating. As appropriate, formal and informal evaluation is taken from students through surveys, continued communication, and donations. All this feedback is taken into consideration as the initiative is then reflected upon and reworked.

This article reflects on the student organization documentation initiative’s first year of implementation at Washington State University Vancouver. Of the 53 student organizations on campus during the 2016-2017 academic year, nearly a third responded to contact and 11 student organizations – or 21% – went on to donate materials. Each step of the initiative is outlined and places for improvements are considered.

Literature Review

The effort to bring undergraduate students into the archives and special collections as either users or donors has gained stride since the turn of the century. The body of scholarship detailing outreach practices and theory on basic competencies and skills has grown significantly, slowly ushering archivists away from the image of being passive stewards of collections, reluctant to invite users in.2 This movement from passivity has also encouraged archivists to consider students not only as potential acquirers of knowledge within the archives, but also as sources of knowledge. This article borrows from literature which looks to the student as a user of and donor to the university archives.

Student as User

Archives are often new and intimidating to undergraduate students, who frequently lack confidence in their ability to use archives and primary sources. Despite the difficulty in acquiring them, archival and primary source skills are important for any college student. However, to ethically allow students to donate, these skills are a necessity. Students must understand what an archive is and how their records will be used. Therefore, to see students as a donor they must first be seen as a user.

In 2008, Elizabeth Yakel presented composites of various users based on her years of interactions with these populations.3 The composite “Brad” highlights the difficulties undergraduates have with being archives users. Though he struggles to navigate the archives and special collections, Brad is hesitant to ask for the extra help he needs and worries doing so might undermine his intelligence. Yakel’s insights are important for considering the tone to create with students to encourage questions.

To improve student confidence, archivists have considered the necessary skills and knowledge – or archival intelligence – needed for students to comfortably navigate the archives. In 2002, Yakel identified skills for learning to access and utilize the archives and special collections. Key amongst these, Yakel argues students must be able to define what an archive is and what findings aids are. Additionally, students must know how to utilize finding aids and related access tools.4 In encouraging students to define terminology for themselves, Yakel places agency on students to be active participants in acquiring these skills.

The following year Yakel and Deborah Torres identified arguably more advanced skills for archival intelligence. In addition to needing advanced critical thinking and problem-solving skills to maneuver around archival collections, Yakel and Torres argue users must have an understanding “of archival theory, practices, and procedures.”5 Efforts to encourage students to gain this intelligence or understanding of the archives has taken many forms of outreach.

In 2008, Wendy Duff and Joan Cherry identified five types of archival instruction which might help students, including brief interactions at the reference desk, tours with introductions to policies, tutorials using archival resources, multiple hour sessions, and full-term course.6 The pair found, following a survey, that students marginally increased their confidence following an orientation to the archives.

In “Selling the College and University Archives: Current Outreach Perspectives,” Tamar Chute notes the lack of university archives access and/or interest in promoting access prior to the early 1980s.7 In the face of this need to change a perception of exclusion, archivists have created a myriad of outreach projects. They have targeted audiences from various bodies on or related to a college campus, including students, faculty, administration, and alumni.8 Programs have often gone beyond traditional outreach to much success, for example with the creation of holiday based events utilizing related collections.9 In the face of present day campus issues, archivists have also informed students through lectures and exhibits on past student activism.10

Student as Donor

Actively seeking student records has been an interest for some time in college and university archives. Interest in student materials grew out of the late 1960s broader interest in expanding historical narratives beyond the quintessential affluent white male narrative. Interest in the student narrative began with a focus on the educational endeavors of students and the respective records those endeavors generated.11 Perhaps spurred by an interest to avoid Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) regulations or a desire to document students more holistically, recent decades have seen a growing interest in the examination of student life beyond the purely academic.12 While some have considered student oral histories as a means of collecting the whole through a few student experiences, others have continued to segment the population – particularly through student organizations – in the hopes of collecting a bit from the many.13 Though targeting student materials through student organizations presents the possibility of excluding voices and segmenting the student experience, organizations often last longer on a college campus than the typical student.

In “Giving It More Than the Old College Try: Documenting Diverse Populations in College and University Archives,” Kathryn M. Neal examines the diverse bodies – such as departments, offices, and student organizations – on a campus, the types of documents they may hold, and the potential ways to reach said populations.14 Included in these options, Neal provides a model for a diversity initiative, which involves collection surveys and network building, collecting, and various outreach methods.

Focused on the student government specifically, Megan Stark, et al. worked with the Associated Students of the University of Montana to digitize their papers.15 While external users may find interest in these records, it is believed the collection will primarily be accessed for the continued use of the student government. Beyond a model for bringing in student materials, Stark, et al.’s work speaks to the importance of listening to student needs, even if those needs depart from the donor norm.

Despite more active and aggressive efforts to solicit collections, there continues be a struggle to bring these narratives in. In 2005, Swain identified three hurdles that must be overcome in order to promote donation.16 Swain’s findings were informed by a survey of seven classes which had received an orientation to the archive. The survey sought to find suggestions for outreach and collection-development programs. Swain argued that first, archivists must change student perception of the archives. Second, archivists must discover how students are documenting their experience. Third and finally, archivists must motivate students to donate their documents.

Similar to Swain’s work, Jessica L. Wagner and Debbi A. Smith conducted a student survey, circulated via mass email, to learn about the archives’ use and perceptions and to attempt to solicit student materials.17 The survey found a lack of knowledge of the resources available to students. Additionally, students were unaware that the university archives were interested in student life and related documents. Following the survey, the archivists considered their next steps forward, including becoming involved in Freshman orientation sessions and coordinating with student organizations.

In the face of student opposition to or disinterest in donating, some have suggested methods to document student activities through website captures, eliminating the need to engage with students. In 2007, Prom and Swain set out to capture websites for all student organizations rather than a select few.18 Following the captures, students were contacted via email with the option to change the terms associated with the materials or to have them removed. Written prior to the outgrowth of social media and present-day campus climate issues, the ethical ramification of what is being advised by Prom and Swain was likely not as clear in 2007. However, in a time of student distrust, this method may not be best for instilling trust and building partnerships.


As with many outreach programs before this one, this documentation initiative segments the student population. It focuses on one aspect of their experience as students – their involvement in student organizations – and excludes other elements, including their coursework and their home life. Additionally, each institution has its own culture, making it difficult for a case study to act as a representative model. Washington State University Vancouver has several quirks that differentiate it from other institutions. WSU Vancouver is a non-residential, 28-year-old branch campus with an average student age of 26. Furthermore, while there has been some student activism at WSU Vancouver, students have yet to focus specifically on campus climate or politics. Outreach methods used at WSU Vancouver may not translate well on other campuses and archivists on campuses that have seen issues of inclusivity may need to use extra care.

The Six-Step Iterative Project Design

The documentation initiative utilizes a six-step iterative project design: survey, initial contact, discussion, evaluation, reflection, and rework. While the task of bringing student narratives in through a project of this scale may be daunting, the methods present in this project are not dissimilar from those commonly employed by archivists. The survey and analysis below provide a description of how each phase was enacted at WSU Vancouver in its first year.


First, archivists must survey their collections to learn what student materials are already present in the university archives. Beyond serving to show the gaps present, surveying the university archives can also highlight interesting organization materials to include later in donor discussions. Where possible, archivists should view acquisition records or other documentation that might suggest how these materials came to be in the university archives.

Despite being a young campus, the WSU Vancouver Archives and Special Collections had already successfully captured several student-run media outlets, including The VanCougar newspaper and the Salmon Creek Journal. Unfortunately, this was largely the extent of the student materials in the Archives and Special Collections. This meant that there were not many exciting examples to show students to reassure them that the Archives and Special Collections had already begun the work to preserve their history. It also meant looking beyond the archives to get an understanding of the campus culture.

Archivists must be informed about what is currently occurring on their campus. Current issues will impact the types of outreach and contact possible and appropriate. Additionally, beyond understanding what is happening with students, it helps to learn the various faculty and administrative bodies which may be of help in this project.

This initiative was implemented shortly after I came to WSU Vancouver. The lack of institutional knowledge, especially regarding the campus climate, made the surveying period essential. This project required an understanding of the campus climate and its relationship to student protests that had been taking place across the United States; of the players, including student groups, faculty advisors, and the administration; and of the structures and outreach currently in place.

Beyond the archives, the campus was far quieter than many around the United States. In Fall 2016, students held a Black Lives Matter rally and march through campus.19 In the wake of the 2016 U.S. Presidential election, there were also several events for students to voice their concerns.20 Though there was student activism present, that activism was not directed towards the administration or other bodies on campus. Instead the students have consistently looked beyond to the national landscape. This has provided for a certain level of liberty when considering outreach that might not have been possible elsewhere.

The student community portal, CougSync, was invaluable in learning about the 53 active student organizations and their respective leaders and faculty advisors. With attendance at student events and student-led rallies, trusted staff and faculty made themselves apparent. These faculty and staff were informed of the project and encouraged to talk to the students within their sphere about preserving their records.

Initial Contact

Second, the archivist will seek to make initial contact with the student organizers. The ideas for how this might be accomplished are endless and include attending student events, emailing, engaging in a social media campaign, creating an exhibit, or using popular forms of student outreach, such as tabling on campus in which students gather in a designated spot on campus to inform passing students about their group. Archivists should consider the various forms of contact students are using to get out their message and evaluate if reaching out via these methods would be feasible or appropriate for the University Archives.

Students were contacted both in person – through an involvement fair, rallies, and events – and via email. Near the end of the Fall 2016 semester, this project received funds from the WSU Vancouver Diversity Council allowing several of the first student organizations’ donated materials to be processed.21 This created another opportunity to reach out to students and encourage donation with the knowledge that trusted faculty and staff on the Diversity Council had vetted the project. Towards the end of the academic years, select faculty advisors were also contacted via email to encourage student interest. Of the 53 organizations on campus, 17 followed up in some form.

For some students, initial contact and knowledge that the Archives and Special Collections was interested in their work was all that was needed to encourage donation. Four groups opted to never meet for a discussion and to instead email their items and the transfer agreement or add me to their organization’s Google Drive. Though this made formal evaluation difficult, student ease should be the priority.


Third, once students have expressed interest in learning more, the archivist will meet for a two-part discussion including an introduction to the archives and a donor conversation. These meetings should take whatever format students are comfortable with – be it with the entire organization, board members, or a chosen representative. Additionally, these discussions should take place wherever students are comfortable, such as in the library or during their regularly scheduled meeting.

Seven of the 17 groups contacted opted for a group-based discussion format. The discussions began and concluded with the distribution of questionnaires evaluating students’ archival knowledge. Due to one group not being able to finish questionnaires at the end of the discussion, the meetings generated 19 pre-discussion and 13 post-discussion questionnaires. An additional two organizations opted for in-person discussions, however the one-on-one meetings with organization leadership hindered formal evaluation.

While this project first and foremost sees students as donors to the college archives, students must also be considered potential users in order to provide an introduction to the archives. Therefore, the first component of the discussion should offer a very basic introduction to what an archive is, what finding aids are, and how students would go about gaining access to their institution’s repository. This conversation seems to be most successful with plenty of examples of student organization materials to illustrate the items the archives might be interested in. Additionally, it helps to have a finding aid present to demonstrate what will become of their items once donated.

During the orientation period of the discussion, it is often difficult to identify what to include and what to exclude. Unlike an instruction session or orientation to a class, students in an organization may come from departments across the campus and they may range from freshmen to seniors. This conversation then works best when students guide it – asking for clarification in places where they are confused and asking to bypass sections they are familiar with. To encourage students to make the most of this time, archivists should promote an environment where they feel safe to ask questions.

The second component of the discussion is a donor conversation. Students might be questioned about their organization’s history and mission, the materials they create, and the types of materials which best represent their work. They may also be questioned on whether or not they have continued ties to alumni in the hopes of generating material for donation further back than the last couple years.

All students surveyed said their respective groups were creating emails, event sign-in/sign-up sheets, flyers/posters, photographs, and giveaways/swag. Many members also stated their group was creating meeting minutes (n=11) and some form of printed updates, such as a newsletter (n=6). All groups also had some level of social media presence. When asked which materials best show the work their groups are doing, meeting minutes (n=6), flyers/posters (n=6), and photographs (n=4) received the most support. This emphasis on familiar mediums – though typically created digitally – is interesting in the face of growing interest in capturing social media.

The donor segment of the conversation also gives students an opportunity to address any concerns they may have regarding donating. Even after a brief introduction to the archives, students may not understand the full implications of donating. It is the archivist’s duty to inform students of potential concerns and tactics for easing those concerns. When asked about their concerns about donating in the 13 post-discussion questionnaires, the majority (n=9) stated they had no concerns. Those with concerns were worried about the identification of members (n=2) and the Archives and Special Collections having access to their social media accounts (n=1). With these groups that mentioned concerns, the Archives and Special Collections then discussed the possibility of redacting names, setting restriction periods, and/or donating only selected social media posts rather than documenting and capturing the whole. In the end, the students chose the latter option.

Finally, an in-person meeting is a great opportunity to conclude with the next steps to donating. In discussions to the entire organization, the archivists can take this time to remind students about the types of materials they have agreed to donate. In discussions to group leadership, archivists may also assign topics to take back to the whole of their organizations, specifically regarding concerns or additional contacts with alumni that other members may have. If students feel confident in donating at that point, they can simply be set up with a transfer agreement and a prospective donation date or timeline.


Fourth, archivists should attempt to gather formal and informal feedback on the successes and failures of the contact and discussion. This may look like allowing time before and after the discussion for the students to rate their current understanding of archives and of the need to preserve the materials they create. In individual one-on-one discussions and email correspondence, formal feedback may not be feasible or entirely comfortable. In such cases, informal feedback may be expressed in continued contact or continued interest in donating.

Prior to the discussion, nearly all (n=18) of the students were familiar with the term “archive(s),” though the majority (n=17) had never visited an archive before. Despite this, no student stated they would be uncomfortable at the prospect of visiting one, though several (n=7) felt they would need additional instruction before utilizing their campus archives. Following the discussion, all students surveyed stated they would be comfortable using archival resources without further instruction.


Fifth, following evaluation the archivists would enter a period of reflection where they might consider the interactions and progress thus far. Data from formal evaluations can easily be compiled to reflect student thoughts on the discussions. Other less formal points to consider might be rate of student response, interest in utilizing collections, and continued interest in donating.

Methods of outreach employed in the first iteration led to nearly a third of the organizations making contact. While this was a mildly successful beginning effort, the fact that two thirds did not respond, signals more efforts need to be made. On a campus like WSU Vancouver, this will likely translate to more aggressive forms of outreach, such as stopping by at the beginning or end of an organization’s meetings.

Additionally, from the 17 organizations that expressed interest, five later indicated they might wish to donate later rather than in the current academic year.20 This lack of donation suggests there needs to be continued and possibly more aggressive follow-up measures taken, beyond email correspondence and checking in during happenstance in-person meetings. As the documentation initiative moves into its second year at WSU Vancouver, new outreach and follow-up methods have begun to use structures already in place, such as library social media accounts and student organization orientations to create more chances for interactions. This closer consideration for locating potential points of contact with students is just one of the means of reworking the documentative initiative.


Sixth and finally, the project is reworked to incorporate the successes, failures, and other lessons learned during the previous iteration. The lead should consider ways to utilize connections – both with students and other departments on campus – made throughout the first iteration. They should also consider ways to tackle new goals and to fill gaps still present within the collection. This phase comes alongside, as do all the steps following the discussion, additional follow-up as necessary to ensure donations from student organizations which have already been reached.

As those leading the initiative get more involved in campus life, they will likely become more informed about the various structures already in place. For example, in the initial iteration the Archives and Special Collections learned that in order to get funds allotted by the student government at WSU Vancouver, two students from every student organization must attend an orientation hosted by the Office of Student Involvement annually. The Archives and Special Collections has now begun the process of taking part in these orientations. In a very brief 5-minute introduction, the Archives and Special Collections hands out an information sheet and transfer agreement form and explains that the work the students are doing throughout the year is important to university history and that the archives would like to preserve that work. It is hoped that reaching them early will keep donating in their mind throughout the school year. The Archives and Special Collections is also hoping to develop permanent ties to the Office of Student Involvement to streamline donations.

In addition to participating in these orientations and in the Involvement fair at the beginning of the Fall 2017 semester, an exhibit was displayed in the library highlighting materials already collected and advocating for further donations. This exhibit gave new students an opportunity to learn about some the active organizations. It also gave returning students some encouragement to donate materials they still have from previous years. As WSU Vancouver continues to grow its student organization collection, the Archives and Special Collections will continue to explore the ways these materials might be used to encourage further donation, such as tabling with potential Throwback Thursday (#TBT) material.

Beyond outreach, the Archives and Special Collections is also reconsidering the donor discussions. When asked about improving the discussions, several students (n=5) stated they wanted more structure in what to include in their donation – despite having examples of what they might consider including. This desire presents a difficult fine line for the archivist. Too little structure seems to make students believe donating is far more difficult and time consuming than it is; too much structure may exclude creative projects students are engaged in. Tentatively, students will be given a list of materials they might want to include and language which will hopefully make it clear that these are not the only options open to them.


Throughout the different phases of this first iteration from the 2016-2017 academic year, 11 student organizations donated materials from at least the past years’ activities. Materials collected in the first iteration at WSU Vancouver have since been processed and finding aids can now be found on the Archives & Special Collections’ online portal.22 At WSU Vancouver, we hope with new outreach methods, the next iteration will bring more interest from other organizations and continued interest from the organizations which have previously been reached. As each organization’s leadership and membership turns over, outreach will likely have to continue year after year, though we hope in time the Archives and Special Collections’ might become a seamless part of their Spring leadership transition. At WSU Vancouver and beyond, the student organization documentation initiative holds the promise to not only combat Swain’s hurdles, but to go further to address present campus climate issues.

As stated above, in 2005, Swain argued that archivists must 1) change student perceptions of the archives, 2) learn the materials students are creating, and 3) encourage student donations. Though often this project found students who lacked any perceptions or understanding of the university archives, with outreach and discussions students can begin to perceive the archives as a resource for them to succeed academically and to preserve their work on campus. Additionally, the discussions, both in person and via email, provide an opportunity for archivists to learn about student life and how they are documenting it. Finally, through contact and the iterative nature of the project, archivists can repeatedly encourage students to donate the materials they are creating. While Swain’s three hurdles still provide an excellent starting point for designing outreach to potential student donors, written prior to the current prevalence of student activism, answering the three hurdles is no longer enough. Archivists must also be able to create trust and transparency.

Reaching student donors and maintaining their interest with their hectic schedules pulling them in different directions is difficult. It is tempting then in an age when so much of their lives are digitally preserved to simply capture it without permission and without contact. While this practice is concerning from the standpoint of copyright and intellectual property laws, I implore university archivists to look beyond copyright and FERPA to the ethical ramifications of doing so. The university archives should not become yet another place for student distrust of campus authorities. Students must be educated about the potential hazards that come with donation, especially when they come from vulnerable populations on campus or when they have been engaged in work which combats campus administration or policies. Students, as with any donor, should have the right to decide how much and what of their life is preserved. This documentation initiative provides an opportunity for archivists to build a relationship of trust and transparency with students through continuous communication.


Thank you to the University of California, Los Angeles’s MLIS program for allowing me to explore this project while I was a student. Thank you to Karen Diller, Robert Schimelpfenig, and the WSU Vancouver Library for supporting this project and the representation of student voices in the university archives. Thank you to the WSU Vancouver Diversity Counsel for funds to process student organization records donated in the 2016-2017 academic year. Finally, thank you to my editors Jenny Kinniff, Bethany Messersmith, and Ian Beilin for helping me take a project that has been in my mind for years and translate it into an article that will hopefully help preserve the student narrative.


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