Kathrin Pindl: From a small archive's standpoint - A short review on the Spital Archive's didactic practice in a digital world

published under CC-BY-SA license


Can a small, private archive with limited funds prevail academically in a more and more digital world? Regensburg's Spital Archive might serve – for better or worse – as a benchmark for the implementation of innovative didactic practice in an archival environment. There are more than twenty didactic collaborations between the archive and the University of Regensburg, adult education institutions and schools. The paper discusses these collaborations on the basis of an online survey among the Spital Archive's didactic affiliates. In a hands-on approach, it depicts best-practice aspects of how the Spital Archive has built network structures within the academic community and organised its didactic collaborations.



Didactic practice in a digital world – is there anything a small, private archive could contribute? Very far from belonging to any digital avant-garde, with minor funds for Web 2.0 and digitisation activities, Regensburg's Spital Archive has been trying to uphold a high teaching profile by combining digital resources with didactic practice for more than ten years. Thus, for better or worse, the Spital Archive might serve as a benchmark for the implementation of innovative didactic practice in an archival environment.

By pointing out the results of an online survey conducted among its didactic affiliates, the Spital Archive's experience – though entirely subjective – can possibly provide valuable hands-on guidance for fellow institutions which face a similar set of chances and challenges such as a limited staffing level, a small budget and a substantial need to prevail academically in a more and more digital world.

In the following, our aim is to self-critically assess the Spital Archive's performance when it comes to didactic collaborations. First of all, we will introduce the Spital Archive as a peculiar, private institution which is completely devoid of official or institutional bonds with any city or state archives. Despite its distinct nature, the general features that make up the Spital Archive's didactic profile might reflect many small archives' potentials and problems.

Our paper will discuss the long-term collaboration between the Spital Archive and the University of Regensburg under the aspects of best practice and evaluation. How to build network structures within the academic world and beyond? How to detect worthwhile didactic strategies? How to include online resources in teaching? How to recruit young academics for content-related research?


Archives of the Katharinenspitalstiftung Regensburg – Foundation of the hospital of St Catherine

With its history of almost 800 years and its more than 5,000 charters, 4,500 books of accounts, its chronicles, files, maps and pictures, the small but historically momentous Spital Archive holds more than a few high-profile resources for regional and international scholars. The Spital itself was established around 1220 as a foundation of the citizens of the Imperial City of Regensburg under bishop and town lord Conrad IV. Its constitution with a hospital master and a board of directors consisting of eight members has not been significantly changed since 1226. With its buildings of architectural and art-historical importance, the Spital is situated next to Regensburg's famous Stone Bridge.

The main concern of the Spital as a non-profit organisation has always been welfare for the poor and sick, financed by charity as well as by economic activities. Nowadays, the Spital foundation includes a nursing home, a Roman Catholic parish, one of the oldest breweries of Bavaria as well as large forests. Ever since, the archive has been the smallest part of the so-called Foundation of the Hospital of St Catherine in Regensburg, Bavaria. As a small and expensive, yet cherished part of this thoroughly diverse portfolio, the Spital Archive perpetuates the historical, quasi-corporate identity of one of Europe's oldest hospitals.

If we take a look at the Spital Archive's website and Web 2.0 performance[1], we see that there is much to improve in order to enlarge the scope. Practically, there is one homepage containing some basic information plus a mostly inactive Facebook page that fairly regularly provides news and miscellanea on archival topics. Alas, it is obvious that not much time and human effort can be spared to enhance the Web 2.0 activities. However, above all, there is Monasterium.

Monasterium is the largest virtual archive for medieval charters. Today, it is a consortium with members from 60 cultural institutions from more than ten countries.[2] The Spital Archive belongs to the original members of Monasterium. Still work in progress, you can already find an impressive number of Spital charters from 1145 to 1568 together with editorial information on their website.[3] The Spital Archive's partnership with Monasterium and its umbrella organisation, the International Centre for Archival Research (ICARUS), not only means conservational advantages and chances for academics from all over the world that can freely access the medieval Spital charters: it is a priceless asset for collaborations in academic teaching, too. Nowadays, most of the Spital Archive's didactic affiliates use Monasterium as a resource.

Since the early 1990s, fruitful didactic collaborations between the Spital Archive and educational institutions in Regensburg have been established. The didactic partners, in general, come from the University of Regensburg, from several institutions for adult education in Regensburg as well as from a number of high schools in and around Regensburg. As of 2014, there are sixteen academic collaborations from within a radius of about 30 kilometres.


Evaluation of the Spital Archive's didactic practice

In order to evaluate these collaborations, we conducted an online survey in the summer of 2013. To be part of the sample, the participants needed to have conducted at least one course relating to the Spital Archive within the past five years. Twenty one lecturers were invited and sixteen didactic partners responded. It took them between seven and fifteen minutes to – anonymously – answer 25 questions. The questionnaire design was created using the software package SoSciSurvey which is free of charge if used for non-commercial academic purposes.

Because of the small sample, our results cannot be regarded as significant from a purely statistical point of view. Nevertheless, they grant some insights into the Spital Archive's way of building network structures within the academic world and beyond. They suggest didactic strategies, in particular, on how to include online resources in teaching as well as on how to recruit young academics for content-related research. Therefore, the results of the online survey might inspire archives of comparable size and structure to pursue didactic ambitions further or at all.

To begin with, as a first major result of our questionnaire we could detect a clear pattern in the generational structure of the Spital Archive's didactic affiliates. The vast majority is younger than 35 years of age. 61% of them are employed as assistant professors at the University of Regensburg and additionally, 15% work, in a similar position as research assistants. Most of the Spital Archive's didactic affiliates, therefore, belong to the non-professorial teaching staff.

So when it comes to making the Spital Archive attractive for academic partners, our target group has been identified as young to middle-aged academic staff. Doubtlessly, we can conclude that they spot a certain computer affinity and that they are, presumably, open-minded concerning new approaches in teaching. As far as we can assess, they are keen to integrate digitised materials into their teaching efforts. In short, our survey results suggest that non-professorial teaching staff seems best accessible and motivated to try new didactic concepts.

After having identified our core target group for didactic collaborations, the next question remains: how to build network structures within the academic world and beyond? Obviously, the Spital Archive has succeeded in doing so for the past two decades and is eager to continue. One of the crucial parts of establishing strong didactic partnerships is to make contact with the future didactic affiliate or: "How to network within the academic community?"

When asked through which channel they first learned about the Spital Archive and the possibility to integrate its holdings into their own teaching at university or school, 56% of the interviewees mentioned cultural events or, respectively, adult education activities. The Spital Archive regularly takes part in Regensburg's World Heritage Day, the Archives Day and similar events which are, no doubt, valuable contact markets. Another 44% said they learned about the possibility to establish a didactic partnership via personal contact.


Short review on the Spital Archive's didactic practice in a digital world

This indication, in particular, highlights the central role of the archive's staff. In the case of the Spital Archive, the staffing level consists of one full-time, state-trained archivist with his academic background and network in the Regensburg university community. Apart from the Spital's chief archivist, there is only one assistant plus two student research assistants. Taking into account these modest numbers, it becomes obvious that personal contacts must never be underestimated – even in a small team, each and every employee might serve as a multiplicator of the Spital Archive's didactic potential. Strategic networking pays off, you could say and so does fostering mutual bonds between the academic community and the archive. The Spital Archive tries to do so by inviting the didactic affiliates to formal and informal events. By participating in cultural events such as open days or local and interregional events, the Spital Archive reaches visibility within the academic community and beyond. Here, university events are of special importance. There are internship fairs and similar events which happen to attract users as well as new didactic affiliates.

Even more crucial than simply finding interested lecturers is of course to offer an interesting portfolio for teaching. In order to reach this goal, an important matter is to detect the archive's core sectors. First and foremost, it seems necessary to define – or even to redefine or to rethink – the archive's core assets. For example, most academics who work with Spital material come from a medievalist background and/or belong to the department of Regional History of Bavaria. This is, naturally, due to the Spital Archive's specific holdings – a given fact that seems commonplace.

However, the Spital Archive does also welcome academic affiliates who do not come from these traditional fields. Namely by detecting formerly overlooked interesting material, such as books of account, it has been possible to reach a variety of new departments, from linguistics to economic and social history. So quite obviously it turned out to be possible to extend the Spital Archive's collaboration opportunities.

The next rather hands-on issue is the question about how the Spital Archive's didactic partners include digital resources in their teaching. Are there especially worthwhile didactic strategies? The online survey showed that most courses that use Spital data work with digital material that is derived from Monasterium.net. Our didactic partners either directly use the platforms, or they use printed copies or transcripts during their courses. The only time their students physically get in touch with the original charters is when they visit the archive in the course of a study trip exercise.

Apart from study trip exercises which are highly estimated as they are instructive in several ways – the students also gain experience in handling of more or less fragile charters, plus they get an insight into the everyday working environment of an archivist – courses that are conducted by using Spital material include: primary source exercises (where undergraduate students learn paleographic skills by transcribing Spital charters), auxiliary science exercises (where students improve their skills in paleography, sphragistics and diplomatics amongst other auxiliary sciences), exercises on theory and methodology (where students learn about theoretical and methodological concepts such as source criticism), computing exercises (where students learn, for example, about concepts of digital editing), proseminars (courses for undergraduate students with a specific topic, often using primary sources). Adult education and school courses are mostly held in the form of project seminars, where the students occupy themselves with a certain topic for a few weeks or months.

According to our survey, there is a number of didactic means which are preferred by the academics who teach these courses. These exercise types are, as the results prove, discussions within the seminar group, case studies (where the seminar group researches a certain problem using primary sources), media design (producing, for example films, websites or smartphone applications – the so-called Spital App is a successful product of one of these seminars), group work of any kind, presentations (single or group presentations) as well as seminar papers.

The questionnaire has also shown that there are several didactic choices which are most highly regarded by the interviewees. These are content-related homework (paleographic exercises done at home using Monasterium as a platform), letting the students prepare a lesson. Collective transcribing, commenting and interpreting of archival resources is also seen as most effective. All in all, one positive effect almost all of the participants pointed out is the fact that the digital material provided by the Spital Archive significantly lowers the threshold for students to work with digital material.

The most important conclusion we can derive from the Spital Archive´s experience is that didactic collaboration is a win-win-situation for the archive, the didactic partners as well as the students themselves. A number of BA or MA theses and even dissertations have been written using Spital material. The students reportedly got in touch with the topics in the course of the Spital-related courses. The BA and MA theses are not only relevant contributions to the historical discourse – they are also symbols of the fruitful collaboration. Apart from those qualification theses, students get the opportunity for an internship in the Spital Archive, thus gaining practical experience, and others even get a job as student research assistants. The collaboration with our didactic partners proves to be an efficient way to recruit young academics for content-related research.

The evaluation shows that 89% of the interviewees agreed with the statement that didactic collaboration with the Spital Archive went smoothly. 88% found that the Spital Archive's digital resources were easy to integrate into their didactic concepts. 72% said that their students did profit from a study trip to the archive. As a matter of course, there is not only the rosy picture and for sure there is a lot to improve. 37% expressed the opinion that it is difficult to discover the online resources of the Spital archive. There are also complaints that more material, especially books of account, should be made available digitally. For some didactic usages, the online pictures are too blurred, so that the didactic partners demand scans in higher resolution. Another wish that has been mentioned was that ready-made thematic concepts would facilitate didactic practice. Surprisingly, 43% of the Spital Archive's didactic affiliates who took part in the online survey disagreed with the remark that the digital resources were the main reason for their collaboration.

This last result indicates that, apart from substantial archival holdings, financial resources and coordinated digitisation efforts, there are soft factors that make the difference when it comes to didactic practice in a digital world for small, private archives. The Spital online survey has shown that visibility, accessibility and the willingness to stay up to date lead to stable networks and, finally to content-related research as a result of didactic collaborations.

Facebook page of the Spital Archives, "Spitalarchiv" (https://www.facebook.com/Spitalarchiv?fref=ts) (viewed 16 January 2014). 
Monasterium, "Archives in monasterium.net-consortium" (http://batchgeo.com/map/f34979ca22a00aac81c6565592e0042a) (viewed 16 January 2014). 
Monasterium, "Bestand: Urkunden (1145-1568)" (http://www.mom-ca.uni-koeln.de/mom/DE-AKR/Urkunden/fond) (viewed 16 January 2014). 

About the Author

Kathrin Pindl

Kathrin Pindl works as a research assistant at the Chair of Economic and Social History of the University of Regensburg. Since 2010, she has been engaged in a collaboration project between the Chair of Regional History of Bavaria and Regensburg´s Spital Archive. Her research interests include pre-modern living standards in European regions, poverty in historical perspective as well as the history of everyday life and consumption. She is eager to learn more about digital humanities in archival context. More information: http://www.uni-regensburg.de/philosophie-kunst-geschichte-gesellschaft/wirtschafts-und-sozialgeschichte/mitarbeiter/kathrin-pindl/index.html.

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