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Helen Keller Archive

A fully accessible digital collection from
the American Foundation for the Blind

About the Archive

Lesson One: Introduction to Digital and Physical Archives

Before teaching

Main idea

Archives are facilities that house physical collections, where records and materials are organized and protected. Archival materials are used to write history. Through the internet, digital archives make those records more accessible to students, researchers, and the general public.


Students learn to navigate a digital archive and perform effective keyword searches. Through this process, students learn how to use the Helen Keller Archive. They also learn the value of preserving information and how to navigate a collection in the digital age.

Learning objectives

  • Understand the function and significance of an archive.
  • Understand the different capabilities of a physical and a digital archive.
  • Know more about how archives can increase accessibility for people with visual and/or hearing impairments.
  • Navigate the digital Helen Keller Archive using the Search and Browse tools.

Guiding Questions

  • What is an archive?
  • How do I use a digital archive?
  • Why are archives important?


  • Computer, laptop, or tablet
  • Internet connection
  • Projector or Smartboard (if available)
  • Worksheets (provided, print for students)
  • Pen/Pencil/Paper


45 minutes



Helen Keller Archive

American Foundation for the Blind


Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room

The Library of Congress Manuscript Reading Room
Washington D.C.
Manuscript Division.

Other archive examples

Sports: Baseball Hall of Fame; primarily physical archive with partial photographic digital collection ( (

Politics: United Nations; primarily physical archive with online exhibits ( (

Comics: Stan Lee Archives (

History: Buffalo Bill Collection (

Dogs: American Kennel Club; primarily physical archive with partial digital collection ( (

Art: Metropolitan Museum of Art Archives; physical archive with separate digital collections and library (

Travel: National Geographic Society Museum and Archives (
National Geographic digital exhibits (

Space travel: NASA Archive; partially digitized (

Music: Blues Archive; partially digitized (

Books: J.R.R.Tolkien; physical archive (

Lesson Plan

Part 1

Ask and discuss:

  • Do you have a collection? Baseball cards, rocks, seashells, gel pens, shoes, vacation souvenirs?
  • Do you and/or your parents save your schoolwork or art projects?
  • Where and how do you store old photos? Text messages?

Make connections:

  • Personal collections are a kind of archive.
  • Things that you store and organize (to look at later) make up a basic archive.
  • If you wrote a guide for your friend to use when searching through your [vacation photos/baseball cards/drafts of your papers], you would be running an archive like the pros!
  • Select a sample archive to show students; options provided in resource section.

Define an archive:

  • Optional: Use the definitions provided in the lesson dictionary.
  • An archive is composed of unique documents, objects, and other artifacts.
  • Is often a collection that is organized by an institution, managed by archivists, and made available to researchers.
  • Tells us about a person, organization, or physical things.
  • Is organized to make sense of the collection, so that people can find what they are looking for, learn from it, and do research about it.
  • Is typically held and protected in a physical repository, but may be made accessible electronically in a digital platform.


What are the advantages of a physical archive, where you can have the materials right in front of you, versus seeing them on a screen?

  • Hands-on encounter with the past
  • For example, how would it feel to see/read from the original Declaration of Independence at the National Archives
  • OPTIONAL: Ask the class if they have seen National Treasure. Nicholas Cage needs to handle the original Declaration to perform analysis that he would not be able to perform on a digital version. (Please don’t try this at your local archive.)
  • Analyze material properties of objects and manuscripts
  • Can flip through a physical folder more easily than loading a new page for every document
  • Wider range of access to all the items held in the archive (not all items are digitized)

Ask: What are the advantages of a digital archive?

  • Accessible worldwide on the internet – you don’t have to travel to see what’s in the archive
  • Keyword searchable
  • Useful transcriptions and metadata often included
  • Accessible to people with disabilities, including those with impaired vision/hearing
  • For example, the digital Helen Keller Archive allows users to change the text size and color of text and provides description for multimedia including photographs, film, and audio.

Ask and discuss:

  • In 100 years, how will people in the future learn about your life/accomplishments?
  • What kind of archive would contain information about you?
  • Who is saving that information right now?
  • How will the public be able to access that information?
  • Is there information you would not want them to access? Why?
  • How will information about your life be useful to the people of the 22nd century?
  • How do we use information about people from the 19th and 20th century?

Part 2: Using the Helen Keller Archive

Archive demonstration

Open the digital Helen Keller Archive. (


We are going to use the digital Helen Keller Archive.

Who has heard of Helen Keller? Why is she famous? What did she do?

  • Keller lost her sight and hearing at a young age but learned to sign, read/write, speak, and graduated college.
  • She used her fame to advocate on behalf of blind and deaf communities, fought for education/employment for the blind and the inclusion of disabled people in society.
  • She was politically active: Anti-war, advocated for socialism and worker’s rights, as well as the Suffrage movement and women’s rights.


Distribute student version search instructions [PDF file] and explain that you will be going through a few sample searches as a class. Invite the class to follow along if feasible.

Pull up the Helen Keller Archive home page and ask the class to explain the difference between search and browse. For example:

  • The Browse tool uses broad categories.
  • The Search tool uses a keyword search term or terms.

Show the Browse function:

  1. Click the Browse tab
  2. Click Browse by Series; point out the series titles and ask students to explain what each “series” contains.
  3. In this archive, series are organized based on the type of materials (letters, photographs, and more).
  4. Explain that this is how a physical archive is organized (in series, subseries, boxes, and folders).

Show the Search function

  1. Click the Simple Search tab
  2. Ask the class to pick a word to search based on either their knowledge of Helen Keller or class curriculum on late 19th/early 20th century.
  3. Point out the filters in the left hand column and explain how they are used narrow search results. Ask students to choose one area to refine search to narrow their results for a specific reason.

  • For example: “Let’s select 1910-1920 so we can find material written during World War I.”
  • Works like a library or e-commerce website.
  • Show the Browse by subject functions and ask how it is are similar to, or different from, searching by Keyword(s).
  • Use same topic as keyword search (or as close as possible)
  • Explain that not all topics will be present.
  • For example, there is no subject header for computers.


  • Break students into working groups.
  • Assign each group a “scavenger hunt” item (see in class worksheet).
  • Ask the group to search for the item once using browse and again using a keyword search.
  • When all groups are complete, ask each group to explain which search method was the more effective way to find their item and why.
  • Optional: Collect scavenger hunt items in a private list to be shared with the whole class.

Sample Scavenger Hunt List:

  • Photograph of Helen Keller at a United Nations meeting in 1949
  • Collection of letters written to Helen Keller by displaced children during World War II
  • Flyer for a 1981 dance production “Two In One”
  • Film of Helen Keller testing a new communication device in 1953
  • Medal from the Lebanese government
  • Or choose your own …


Activity: Exploring the Helen Keller Archive

Activity: Exploring the Helen Keller Archive – The Needle in the Haystack

For teachers: Performance tasks for Exploring the Helen Keller Archive – The Needle in the Haystack activity

Curriculum standards

This lesson meets curriculum standards:

Common Core


Evaluate the advantages and disadvantages of using different mediums (e.g., print or digital text, video, multimedia) to present a particular topic or idea.


Conduct short research projects to answer a question, drawing on several sources and generating additional related, focused questions for further research and investigation.


Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.


Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Empire State Information Fluency Continuum

Grade 6-8


  • Uses organizational systems and electronic search strategies (keywords, subject headings) to locate appropriate resources.
  • Participates in supervised use of search engines and pre-selected Web resources to access appropriate information for research.
  • Uses the structure and navigation tools of a Website to find the most relevant information.

This collection contains 58,733 items comprising 186,820 images.

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