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Learning History In The Archives of the United Nations
Posted 08/22/2017 10:07AM


Riverdale Upper School history teacher Laura Honsberger has always loved archives.

Working in an archive is a wonderful process of discovery, weeding through documents and papers to get to the good stuff. Inconsequential materials, like a copy of the lunch order, will be piled on top of some really interesting document. It’s also a very creative experience because once you have the documents that interest you the questions begin. What does this tell us about the people who created it, beyond its specific use?

Honsberger had an opportunity to share her enthusiasm for archives with her students starting in summer 2016, when she taught a two-week workshop that included extensive time in the Peacekeeping Missions at the United Nations Archives. A mini-course followed during the school year, and this summer seven students participated in the summer workshop during the last two weeks of June. While the class returned to the United Nations Peacekeeping archive, they also spent time in the New York Public Library. The historical focus was the Suez Canal crisis.

Students received an introduction to archival research in the collections of Peacekeeping Missions at the United Nations Archives. Throughout the program they were challenged to question accepted historical narratives, to examine the documents from which history is made, and to develop their own arguments.

The course packed a lot into two weeks. The first few days were spent at the New York Public Library for an introduction to the history of the United Nations, the central questions raised by peacekeeping missions, and approaches to archival research. A tour of the U.N. followed. Students developed their own research questions and began their dive into primary documents.

Honsberger was delighted to see how excited students were to work in the archive, and their willingness to dig deep into documents. The patience they showed in sifting through materials over an extended period of time was impressive. Their persistence paid off, as they used the materials as a springboard to gain a deeper understanding of world history.

Most students were especially excited to be actually working in the U.N., a place they had only read about in history class or perhaps driven by its headquarters on the east side of New York.

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