Archive Analysis


Students were asked to produce a multimedia and historical analysis of the archives of Saudi Aramco World. It aimed to bring historical and secondary sources alive by putting students directly in contact with primary, archival sources and asking them to critically engage with those materials.

The prerequisite for the archive analysis assignment was reading historian Robert Vitalis' book America's Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier. This constituted the first formal encounter with the topic. 

The activity called for a multimedia and historical analysis of the archives of Saudi Aramco World. The research included both physical and virtual material from the 1960s to the 2000s. Therefore, students used both digital back issues of the archives (URL: as well as Harvard's analog index of those issues. 

The class discussed the Vitalis reading, then browsed the digital collection of the archive (available partially online) and looked up Harvard library's call numbers for the archives together. The reason was two-fold: (1) to give material grasp to the secondary source (Vitalis) via primary sources (the archives), and (2) to make sure the project was logistically feasible and to compare the availability of digital versus analog resources. 

The instructor prepared a 1.5-page handout (see gharavi.pdf) that broke down each step of the project:

(1) Preparation: As a first step, students were asked to identify 5-7 issues from the archives. They could choose to focus on a particular decade (e.g. 1980s) or pick various issues from each available decade. Next, they were asked to skim the issues looking for an event or topic that captured their interest. Ideally this historical or textual object would be prevalent among all media sources (e.g. if “water” is a theme of interest, they would for it in all the issues picked out). They took notes during this process. They bookmarked images of interest and formed a collection of at least 10-15 images for the final oral presentation. They continued taking notes on findings by analyzing their material historically, visually, and critically. This involved contextualizing the event or topic into a larger perspective. How do vantage points, ideologies, or biases reflect how the event or topic was covered? How did the magazine interpret an event or topic? Did they agree or disagree with its interpretation? What additional insight could they bring to the coverage and their own knowledge about the event or topic? 

(2) Producing findings: Written paper: They produced a 5-7 page paper that laid out primary source research in an expository fashion but went further to critically analyzes its contents. Instructions read, "Use your notes to expand your observations into critical thoughts. Keep in mind multiple facets of your archival findings: audience (who is this magazine produced for?), tone (what is the tonality of a given article?), visual structure (how does image placement on the page inform your reading?), among others. Remember: You should provide critical analysis of the assumptions and biases of the media sources, rather than simply drawing facts from them in order to provide a narrative of the historical events."

Oral presentation: They brought a selection of the 10-15 different images collected during the research phase and discussed them as they revealed their findings. Oral presentations lasted around 20 minutes. It was a stand-alone part of the assignment that relied on, but did not read verbatim, from written work. Students were encouraged, "Be creative, historically specific, and self-critical with regard to what you have discovered. Walk us through what you have found, why it excites you, why you think we should pay it attention."

Finally, the author of this activity writes that, "the trope of archives as musty, forgotten warehouses is outdated and unhelpful. Archives have much to teach us; in the case of our activity, we even learned how the archives were censored and bowdlerized. In the age of wider digitalization, archival inquiry is more important than ever. The benefits of a project of this kind include hands-on teaching of critical scholarly methods, relaying a sense of wonder and discovery in material history, and learning to engage with digital historical materials."

gharavi.pdf155 KB