Essex Record Office

Challenging the student perception of researching archives – Essex Record Office (ERO) Feb 2013

Summary of activity

The ERO and the University of Essex designed a one-day session for first year History undergraduates with the aims of:

  • breaking down barriers and building confidence
  • giving experience of documents and how they might be used
  • introducing the research process, engaging in critical analysis, and prompting ideas for dissertations encouraging repeat visits

The visits included a tour, case studies, an introduction to the Sound and Video Archive, original documents and a short research task.

A total of 77 students visited ERO over three days.

This was a pilot project for what will become an annual visit.


  • to reach all of the first year History students at the University of Essex as the visit was a compulsory element of their course
  • to challenge the students’ negative perceptions of a local archive and open up the possibility of using local sources in their studies


  • helping the students feel confident enough to discuss their views in front of the rest of the group
  • some of students were glued to their mobile phones

Responding to the opportunities

  • giving the students a tour of the Record Office and a chance to see what happens behind the scenes, including conservation of documents and the work of the Essex Sound and Video Archive
  • being open and friendly, offering refreshments throughout the day

Responding to the challenges

  • making the day as engaging and interactive as possible by presenting the students with case studies of how they could use local archives in their work and set them a research task to show them what kind of documents they could access and how they could be used
  • taking advice from the university on dealing with the issue of mobile phones

What were the outcomes?

  • an evaluation of the visit showed that the 68% of students’ perceptions of ERO had changed. Before the visit the students had perceived the ERO as ‘dusty’, ‘strict’ and only used by older people, ‘serious historians’ and local or family historians. However the evaluation revealed that the visit had shown them that the ERO was easier to use, more modern and useful for their research than previously perceived
  • at the start of the visits only 10% said that they would have used the ERO for their research but at the end 71% indicated that they would
  • most students commented that they had learned something, from how to use the online catalogue (Seax) to how documents can be conserved at ERO
  • most of the students enjoyed their day; commenting on the research task, looking at ‘treasures’ of the record office, the tour and learning something new

What went well?

  • the evaluation demonstrates that the aims of the visit were clearly met (see outcomes)

What didn’t go quite as well?

  • an unavoidable fire drill during one visit
  • ERO staff led a discussion on critical analysis at the end of the day as this was requested by the University, however on reflection it was felt that the University staff would have been better placed to lead this
  • more time for small group talk before answers were fed back to the whole group might have helped the students feel more comfortable about sharing their answers.

Developing this in the future

ERO hopes that these visits will become an annual fixture. They also hope to work with second year students in the future to remind them of their visit and to help them further with their dissertation topics.

Find out more about the case study by contacting: Sarah Girling or Hannah Salisbury.

Find out more about Essex Record Office.