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Building Knowledge, Breaking Barriers: Archives-Based Learning for Community College Students

October 24, 2022

Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers is an archives-based learning project between the Presbyterian Historical Society and Community College of Philadelphia.

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For a project with “Breaking Barriers” in the title, one obstacle almost proved too much: Covid-19.

Since 2018, a team of students from Community College of Philadelphia (CCP), instructors, project staff, and PHS staff had worked together to bring CCP classes to PHS to learn research skills, tell new history stories, and launch a student designed exhibit at the PHS building. But during the last months of the Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers (BKBB) project, pandemic conditions closed PHS’s doors to the public. CCP classes stopped meeting in person, and the student exhibit leaders didn’t gather as a group inside the PHS building they had been charged with transforming between March 2020 and April 2021, the month when the exhibit launch loomed.

And yet despite those difficulties the project survived, compelled by the commitment of its participants and the historic call of the work: not just to create archives-based curriculum for community college students but also to show that the partnership between PHS and CCP was strong enough to overcome a barrier none had foreseen to meet the challenge together.

That’s exactly what happened. Instructors and students explored digitized collection items online. PHS and project staff designed a project website (BKBBphilly.org) to host those items along with the curriculum guides classes from around the world can now use online, testimonials about student and instructor work in the archives, and a digital version of the groundbreaking student exhibit.

The on-site version of the exhibit required the most effort from some of the project’s longest-serving members: seven student leaders who collaborated with each other and two professional designers via Zoom, Google My Drive, and countless text threads. They researched, designed, and installed their exhibits inside and outside PHS, transforming the building’s colonial-inspired rooms and outdoor spaces into areas that frame the kind of stories never featured before in the archives. Those stories connect to the issues that mattered most to the students as they experienced PHS, including the pandemic, nationwide protests for racial justice, the cultural scene in Philadelphia, and the Presbyterian church’s connection to white supremacy. Walls, windows, and statues became canvasses for their art and research.

Now, a year and a half later, with pandemic conditions allowing non-research visits to PHS, the on-site exhibit is open to all. It feels like a long time to have waited, but maybe that is another blessing in disguise. Time moves differently inside an archive, which isn’t ordered by semesters or quarterly cycles. Archive-time ticks by in years and decades. The sustained preservation of history and the commitment to share it with the public gives full meaning to the PHS collections and its storytelling, including the story of Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers. 

The first classes from CCP are returning to PHS in the fall and spring, when a community college internship project inspired by BKBB will kick off. In early October, PHS hosted an exhibit event that gave the student leaders a chance to finally gather in the space that will forever know their work as part of its history.

Educators and students benefit when the material culture of any community is brought into the classroom. But cultural institutions—including churches and libraries and archives—gain at least as much from that programming. Throughout the years of Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers, the Presbyterian Historical Society developed a deep appreciation for the talents of community college students and educators, and a greater awareness of the forces that have prevented them from using the collections in the past.

There will be more barriers to overcome as PHS and CCP collaborate after BKBB. But the kind of knowledge they have already gained together is a strong foundation to build on.

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Learn more about Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers: www.BKBBphilly.org

About Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers:

--Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers is an archives-based learning project that brings educators, students, and student-support networks from Community College of Philadelphia together with the material and staff resources of the Presbyterian Historical Society, a Philadelphia archive with over 500 years of history to explore. Grant support for the project has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage. Visit www.bkbbphilly.org to learn more.