Developing Archival Literacy among Undergraduates at Maynooth University

Helen Fallon and Professor Anne Ryan, Maynooth University.

5  Special Collections Ken Saro-Wiwa Material  By Alan Monahan (9)Special collections frequently form the basis of postgraduate research but are less frequently used by undergraduate students. This blog post explores the integration of the Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive -into the undergraduate curriculum at Maynooth University.

The Ken Saro-Wiwa archive contains a number of items relating to Nigerian writer and activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, including 28 letters he wrote from death row to Sister Majella McCarron.The letters, mostly handwritten, were smuggled out of military detention in food baskets.

We, the authors, decided to use these letter in the Development Theories module on
the BA in Community Studies, offered by the MU Department of Adult & Community Education, because we thought the letters offered a way to engage with a complex subject – conflict over ownership of natural resources in the Niger Delta region of Nigeria – while giving students an opportunity to gain an understanding of the richness of archives and special collections as information sources.

We have both lived and worked in African countries and share a commitment to people-centred development.

The Development Theories module is offered as part of BA in Community Studies, and  is one of a number of programmes offered by Maynooth University that are designed to meet the specific needs of mature students.  Classes are in the evening to facilitate adults who are unable to attend on a full-time basis during the day.


Module Content

Eighteen mature students opted to take the module. In exploring the modernisation and dependency theories of development the module drew on the following three case studies:

Peace keeping in post civil war Liberia;
Climate change and hunger in Malawi;
The impact of the petrochemical industry on the Niger Delta.

Each of the three case studies followed a similar pattern. The students heard the story of an individual who was directly involved in the initiative being studied. That story was then considered in the light of modernisation and development theories. The first two case studies involved bringing a person into class.  In the Liberia case study the storyteller was an officer in the Irish Defence Forces who served as a UN Peacekeeper in Liberia. In the Malawi case study the storyteller was a Malawian academic. In the final case study (the petrochemical industry in the Niger Delta), the storytelling was done through the letters of Ken Saro-Wiwa.

Ken Saro-Wiwa


Delivering the Module
We jointly prepared and delivered the Niger Delta case study. This allowed the combining of expertise in knowledge of collections and information sources and knowledge of development theory and practice to create a seamless learning experience for the students. In delivering the module, we sought to provide students with a learning experience that: encompassed the context in which Ken Saro-Wiwa campaigned including the discourses surrounding his ultimate execution; an opportunity to explore similar development discourses in today’s world and a chance to develop skills in using and evaluating primary and secondary information sources including an appreciation of the aesthetic and research value of letters.

Our presence in the classroom allowed us to get to know the students and to adapt and adjust the module to meet their needs and concerns. There were a number of African students in the class, three of whom were Nigerian. One of them had met Ken Saro-Wiwa. His contribution to the class created a unique level of student engagement with the topic. As the module progressed, the combination of  letters, artefacts and African students was particularly important in capturing local nuances, which can often be absent when encountering a topic from a distance.

3  Letter KSW re tribunal
Letter to Sister Majella


Videos (including some covering the trial of Ken Saro-Wiwa) and other resources were made available via the Moodle Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) which is used across the University.

The YouTube clips were invaluable in gaining a balanced perspective on Ken Saro-Wiwa’s campaign as some contained extracts from his original manuscripts and the clips could not disguise what was actually taking place on the ground. All very empowering and relevant primary sources. Student quote

Students worked in small groups with a selection of articles covering the conflict in the Niger Delta in newspapers, magazines and journals from different countries from different perspectives. They were asked to compare and contrast coverage, comment on the different types of information sources and summarise the group discussion after reading these different articles.

An awareness of the different types of information sources and the political perspectives of different sources was evident in group feedback.

Truth is slippery. A lot depends on who you are talking to or what you are reading. I’m very conscious now of needing to know whose view I’m hearing and read more than one account.  Student quote

Students were given access to Ken Saro-Wiwa’s letters. Wearing appropriate protective gloves, they were allowed to handle original handwritten letters. This engagement with the physical collection was something the students really appreciated and it was their first introduction to archives and special collection.

The opportunity to actually see, hold and read original letters written by Ken Saro-Wiwa allowed for a real sense of his beliefs and passion to social and economic inequalities, most significantly his commitment to bring the plight of the Ogoni people to the world’s attention. Student quote

The Ken Saro-Wiwa Archive was originally held in the Russell Library (home to pre-1850 material and a major collection of bibles), while a major extension to the main Library (with a Special Collections Reading Room) was being built.

The opportunity given in this module to visit the Russell Library was wonderful and very beneficial. It was my first time in this library. The organizing of a well structured and very professional and informative tour by Librarians enabled us to fully experience and learn about many of the wonderful special collections that the library holds.  Student quote


Course Assessment

The 18 students who undertook the module, were required to complete a 3,000 word assignment. They were free to draw on any or all of the three case studies presented in the module. The fact that 16 of the 18 students drew on the Niger Delta case study within their assignments indicated a high level of engagement with this particular case study.


I really appreciated that Ken Saro-Wiwa was almost like a guest speaker in this module. We heard his voice and saw his face. I felt I got an insight into his experience in dealing with the causes and effects of development. This made such a difference in interpreting and relating the theories to real life situations, rather than just reading text. Also, for me personally, the assignment opened   opportunity to question and challenge my own beliefs regarding the implications of development. Student quote



Special collections and archives provide an opportunity for students to encounter sources and artefacts that enable them to engage more fully with often complex controversial topics that may otherwise seem very removed. The use of such materials allows students to move from a purely information gathering approach to their learning and enables them to better critique knowledge and exercise their curiosity by engaging with non-traditional personal sources such as the letters of Ken Saro-Wiwa. Encountering personal artefacts stimulates a response that is not purely intellectual. It is an interesting way to engage with a topic via a collection. If undergraduate students are exposed to special collections, their learning at the time of contact is enhanced and they have greater awareness of the potential of such collections for their future learning and research.

Librarians and academic staff need to work together more closely to integrate special collections (ideally in original form, but if not feasible, in digitised form) into the undergraduate curriculum. At present these collections are mainly used by postgraduates undertaking specialised research. Increasing the visibility of these collections as a source for undergraduate work needs to be explored further. Librarians need to be involved in the various fora where discussion on the content and design of the curriculum take place, in order for them to promote the use of existing collections and to identify subject areas for potential special collection acquisition.

Through collaborations, such as the one described above, libraries can maximise use of their archives and special collections. Increasing visibility of such resources may also help to acquire funding for new special collections.

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