In Search of Origins: Primary Sources

It’s been a while since my last post, mostly because we just finished the busiest part of the semester for library sessions.  I’m also trying to work out some thoughts on primary sources, and here’s the first of a series of posts about primary sources in information literacy instruction:

A standard part of my library instruction sessions for history classes is a discussion of primary and secondary sources. Most research paper assignments in history require primary sources, so it’s important to make sure students know what those are. And they do. With some guidance, most classes come up with a satisfactory list of document types that are the bread-and-butter primary sources for historians: newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, government documents, etc.  However, while they recognize what primary sources are, I often encounter students struggling to find primary source materials for their individual research topics. They ask, “I’m researching ‘topic X’ and need primary sources. What databases do you have?”  The problem here is the students’ immediate leap from choosing a research topic to searching, a jump based on the assumption that a keyword search in the right database will produce the needed primary sources. The creative process is missing, and that leads to problems.

This creative process is akin to what scientists call operationalization, breaking down the research question into variables that can be studied empirically.  In history, this means considering what kinds of documentary evidence could shed light on an historical event or phenomenon, and then, if they exist and are available, try to locate them.  Based on my experiences, I find students have difficulty envisioning relevant primary sources because of their inexperience using them.  If a student doesn’t know how to apply primary sources to an historical argument, they won’t be able to identify their information needs.

This semester I’ve made efforts to reveal the creative process of primary source work to students who come to the library for help with history research. To illustrate these efforts in a classroom setting, I’ll describe a lesson plan for a U.S. history course on the Old South in which students can research and write about any topic relating to Southern history, from European colonization to the Civil War. The library session was only 50 minutes, so I made the strategic choice to abandon the catalog and journal article databases completely.  Most students can muddle through a keyword search in Google or our library’s discovery tool and come up with secondary sources, and I made frequent invitations to help them individually via e-mail or by appointment should anyone need assistance with that part of the process.

We began with the standard review of what are primary sources, listed a few examples, and then I distributed a worksheet dominated by this image:

Primary and secondary sources Venn diagram

Primary & Secondary Sources Venn Diagram

I explained how the organization of primary sources (the archive) is different than that of secondary sources (the library), and this difference is important to understand while on the hunt. Primary sources are received and organized in accordance with their origins, not by topic or academic discipline, and a single collection of primary sources could be used for a variety of research questions. To illustrate my point, I navigated to the finding aids of Tulane’s Louisiana Research Collection (LaRC), a treasure trove of materials related to New Orleans, the state of Louisiana, and the U.S. South.  I declined to keyword search the collections, but rather pulled up an alphabetical list of finding aids and selected the first one that included records from the class’s time period: Abraham Bell and Company records, 1790s-1880s.  After explaining what information is on a finding aid and the types of documents in the collection, I brainstormed possible research topics that these materials might shed light upon.  In other words, I modeled for them the historian’s creative process by talking through my thought process of transforming the business records of a New York-based shipping company heavily involved in the Arkansas cotton industry into research questions about North-South relations, the life of merchants, Irish immigration, and almost assuredly something about slavery even though there is no mention of slaves in the finding aid itself.

Next I selected another finding aid from the alphabetical list, explained what we were looking at, and challenged the students to come up with possible research questions.  This time we were looking at the Charles E. Alter papers, 1826-1904, and students suggested plantation administration, the fall of plantations after the Civil War (bankruptcy papers are dated 1866 on the finding aid), business culture in New Orleans, and other great ideas.  The goal was for students to recognize how archival collections are organized, and start to see that primary sources can speak to a much larger set of topics than is immediately apparent to what they are “about.”

Slave ads from the New Orleans Daily Picayune, 9 April 1856.

Slave ads from the New Orleans Daily Picayune, 9 April 1856.

Next I gave students the opportunity to examine actual primary sources by turning to an old stand-by: digitized newspapers. I helped the class navigate to the digital version of the Daily Picayune, predecessor to today’s New Orleans Times-Picayune, and instructed them to access page 6 of the April 9, 1856 issue. This page is full of classified ads, and the right-hand column includes 9 ads for slaves, 7 of which offer rewards for the return of runaway slaves.  I asked students to work in groups and propose research questions that could be explored based in part on these ads. The remainder of the class session was spent discussing their ideas.

I didn’t have any formal assessment planned for the session, and instead relied on informal means of evaluating student learning.  Overall students seemed engaged in the discussion of the runaway slave ads. The exercise inspired the professor to join in with probing questions and references to their previous course readings and lectures, and with his guidance, students began to recognize important features of the ads and make hypotheses on slave life, slave economies, and social relations in antebellum New Orleans.  One student asked the winning question: how long does it take historians to analyze a set of primary sources such as these ads?  The professor had to admit that it couldn’t be done by their assignment deadline, so he adjusted the due date on their papers. They still wouldn’t have time to do a full scale primary source-based project, but perhaps the professor learned something about what students don’t know about the historian’s process, and may be able to address that in his own teaching next term.

Another potential solution to this problem of teaching novice historians to work with primary sources is the History Department’s new methods lab, which was piloted this semester and will continue to roll out in the spring.  In my next post I’ll review how I fit the library into this new methods course, and what the professor and I learned from that experience.

2 thoughts on “In Search of Origins: Primary Sources

  1. This was a 2000-level lecture course, which sits between 1000-level intro courses and the 3000-level seminars. This course has been taught before as a 6000-level undergrad/graduate seminar, so this semester it may still be a bit more advanced than other 2000-levels. That said, there are no prerequisites, and you don’t have to be a history major to take it, so I’m never quite sure the demographics in these classes. My philosophy is that students in a history class (major or non-major) need to learn how to use primary sources, and need lots of practice doing so. I favor intensive, guided work with primary sources in lower-level courses, not necessarily in a formal research paper, and save the individually designed research papers for upper-level or capstone courses. Ultimately the professors need to take the lead here and spend significant class time training students in the use and interpretation of primary sources.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s