Presbyterian Church (USA) – Building Knowledge and Breaking Down Barriers Through Collaboration


During September’s PHS Live, the Presbyterian Historical Society (PHS) welcomed attendees to the Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers (BKBB) Archive-Based Learning Project talk about their experiences of working together.

Among those panelists were Community College of Philadelphia (CCP) professor David Prejsnar and student exhibitor Stephanie Santoro. PHS also welcomed two of their own into the discussion: Utilities Associate Sonia Prescott, who acted as a research consultant on the project, and Reference and Outreach Archivist Jenny Barr, who served as liaison archivist for the students and teachers involved.

BKBB attendees at PHS Live September 2022.

BKBB’s website reads: “Building Knowledge and Breaking Barriers was born out of the belief that the Presbyterian Historical Society could create meaningful first-hand encounters between Community College of Philadelphia students and historically resonant materials, develop research and critical thinking skills important for student success. and professional pursuits, and identify ways to further assist Philadelphia students and educators in the future. Addressing barriers to student access and inclusion in the PHS was also one of the main goals of the project. You can read more about the origins of this grant-funded project here.

PHS Communications Director Kristen Gaydos, who also served as Communications Coordinator on the project, outlined the above goals in a brief introduction outlining BKBB’s timeline, which blossomed from collaborative projects in class that took place between PHS and CCP in 2017.

As she spoke about the twin-pronged goals of the project – to build knowledge and break down barriers – Gaydos made sure to emphasize “one of the most persistent obstacles: the Covid 19 pandemic”. Much of the student exhibit development and design work was done through distance learning and online communication.

Despite these difficulties, from 2019 to 2021, the seven student exhibitors worked in collaboration between themselves, PHS staff and external collaborators to create the various installations both inside the PHS building and on the PHS grounds. .

On October 6, PHS is delighted to welcome guests to experience the BKBB exhibit in person – something that has been limited to a virtual tour thus far.

Class collaboration and student introduction to archives

Gaydos first engaged in a discussion with Dave Prejsnar, a CCP professor who was one of PHS’s first classroom collaborators, and Jenny Barr, the liaison archivist for the project, about collecting and working with primary sources from the PHS archives.

“I have to say, I feel like I got the best job in this whole project,” Barr began. “Because I was able to work with the instructors and with the students, and a lot with the material itself.” She then spoke about conscious collaboration, talking with instructors about the scope of their curriculum and learning about how broad the scope of relevant PHS collections was while working with different classes. “We’ve really been able to partner with professors from a lot of different disciplines,” Barr explained.

Another important factor in her choice of materials was being mindful of finding materials that were meaningful to the curriculum and that were difficult, but not impossible, for students to master in a single semester.

Barr then spoke briefly about the breadth of sources available on the BKBB website – which includes the digitized primary sources available to students, as well as a number of sets of sources that vary in theme and may be used by instructors and educators.

Gaydos then asked Prejsnar and Barr what they thought the students involved in the project got away from visiting the PHS archives. “They are engaged in something that is not just a classroom exercise,” Prejsnar replied. “I think one thing is that students are often afraid to talk to librarians, and I think just working with PHS has been such a wonderful experience for so many students…whether they go to a library or archives in the future, they will be much more comfortable. »

Offer assistance and open communication in the creation of student-curated exhibits

When asked about her role in the BKBB project, Sonia Prescott made it clear that she knew how to respond to students’ interests and ideas rather than her own when browsing the collections with them.

“When the students arrived and sat down with me, my first thought was, ‘If you don’t have much experience with archives, what can we do to talk about what interests you?’ It was really important for me, for them to invest themselves in the project, to really deal with things that they were interested in. In cases where the collection did not produce anything substantial related to a subject chosen by the students, Prescott apologized and redirected them.

She went on to explain that one of the hardest parts of this collaborative project was the need to restrict her personal style, opinions and interpretations. “I had to restrain my usual impulse to look at the story a certain way, and just say, ‘what do you think, how do you want to tell the story and how can I help you tell the story? ‘story the way you wanna tell it?’ It allowed me to learn from them, just as much as I hope they learned from me.

Santoro, while sharing her experience of working with Prescott and what compelled her to put together her exhibit, said, “We went through a lot more material that we had to ignore or set aside for future research. It was overwhelming how much access you had, and so with the help of Sonia, I was able to master it. PHS archivists helped me learn how to build something without going everywhere.

Gaydos’ last question was for Santoro: what are some of the challenges and successes you encountered during the project? “Besides the pandemic completely disrupting our in-person collaboration process,” Santoro began, “the biggest challenge for me was really struggling to untangle all these new tensions that I was going through, with myself and with this story that I was exploring.” In terms of successes, she says the project has helped her in many ways: “It has broadened my critical thinking, it has allowed me to express myself better… It has just been transformative in many ways for me. »

The session ended after some questions from the audience with a reminder of the October 6 event, which is free and open to the public, as well as an encouragement to browse the exhibition’s online site at

Santoro’s exhibit, “Keyword: Abolition, Keyword: Revolution,” located in the lobby of the PHS Building, is one of six installations that can be experienced at the October 6 event in Philadelphia. Other exhibit topics include the black church, LGBTQIA+ inclusion, representative public art and culture in Philadelphia, and white Christian attitudes toward Asian communities. Register for the event here.


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