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.


Government Shutdown Reference Help

As the federal government shutdown drags on, students and faculty members are beginning to notice. Valuable government information resources needed for their homework assignments and research projects and made available on those beloved .gov’s are now “.gone.”  All or parts of the websites of the Library of Congress, the U.S. Census Bureau, and other handy government agencies have been furloughed along with their human counterparts. Many are still available, but without any new content, and somewhat amusingly, the federal government is providing online information about the shutdown itself, and how it impacts services:

On my campus, a history instructor has already received the excuse, “I went to view the images assigned for class, but the Library of Congress website is closed due to the shutdown.”  A case of Congress ate my homework, perhaps.  And in an editorial in the campus newspaper, the Hullabaloo, a student lamented the lack of access to valuable government information online.  I should point out that the examples the editorial writer gives are not, in fact, victim to the shutdown, but he’s got the right idea. The shutdown is affecting the flow of information.

This sounds like a job for a librarian!

In an attempt at rapid response, and to help my users get the information they need, I’m putting together a Government Shutdown LibGuide to start to fill the void. My colleagues and I have circulated the link via our library’s social media accounts, and I plan to draft a letter to the editors of the Hullabaloo directing students and faculty to library resources that can help.  It’s worth noting that some subscription services have offered free access to their government document databases during the shutdown: EBSCO is providing free access to their version of ERIC, the Department of Education’s research database, and the folks at Social Explorer are opening access to their great census data tools.

Most students may not realize that libraries, especially the federal depository libraries, often have government information in print and electronic formats independent of actual government websites.  It’s our job to inform our users of these valuable resources, and prove our value even when the federal government itself has failed them.


On the Pedagogical Utility of Microfilm

In 1997, 7th grade reading teacher Maudie Jones remarked upon the great educational value of historical newspapers stored on microfilm, what she called “time capsules buried in the library.” Beyond documenting events of the past, she explains, these treasures introduce students to an historical world through editorials, advertising, and even the writing style and language choices of the past.1 Jones was right that historical newspapers offer more than simple reporting from the past. The authors, editors, and publishers of newspapers made conscious decisions about what to include and how to arrange content on each page in an effort to sell copies to their target readers—important considerations for historians using these sources in their examination of the past.

Today, historical newspapers are among the most popular archival documents to be digitized and sold in keyword searchable databases. Digitization makes these newspapers more accessible while at the same time facilitates new analytical techniques. So what now with microfilm? Setting aside its enduring value for preservation, what can we say about this transition of formats from a pedagogical standpoint? Two factors seem pertinent: students’ relative familiarity with these different formats, and historical methodology.

On the question of familiarity, two students’ reactions to microfilm as a format are instructive. In my content analysis lesson, I wanted to demonstrate the value of newspapers for this methodology, but we were purposefully “analog” during the session and, lacking original papers, I didn’t want to distract from that with digitized collections. So I had a reel of microfilm on hand and unspooled a few feet for demonstration. One student exclaimed with delight, “I’ve seen that on TV!”

In another encounter, this time during a research consultation with a history honors student, I tried to explain how using microfilm is a great way to experience the fullness of historical newspapers. She reacted by asking how much the microfilm company was paying me to say such nice things about a format she clearly disdained.

These two responses to microfilm as a format are, I feel, representative of varying attitudes a digital generation might take to this “old school” technology. In the first instance, I saw curiosity in an object that had not yet been experienced personally, like a tourist visiting the reenactments at Colonial Williamsburg. The sheer novelty of the format was enough to capture the student’s attention. The second student, in contrast, dismissed the format as tedious and retrograde, even intimating my recommendation was bought and paid for. For her, there seemed little point in revisiting a supposed dark ages of research.

How can the former attitude be harnessed and the latter overcome when microfilm is either the only or the best means of access to valuable historical newspapers? I believe the answer lies in my second factor for consideration: historical methodology. If not trained to read historical documents with an eye toward its source, intended audience, and broader context, the typical student will engage with newspapers as he would with any other text: basic reading comprehension.2 For the novice historian, reading newspapers is often a fact-finding mission in order to learn the truth of what happened. And if that is the goal, given the choice between entering keywords in a database to hone in on a relevant page or scrolling through dimly lit film for hours, of course the student will select the digitized content.

If the student is taught proper historical methods, however, and learns to engage with historical texts in order to ascertain the author’s motives and intended audience while seeking context and corroboration, then the value of scrolling through newspapers page by page, day by day becomes apparent. Granted reading newspapers on microfilm will remain a laborious and time-consuming endeavor, for students and professional historians alike. And I don’t advocate including microfilm in library or history instruction simply for its own sake. Instead, it can be a useful vehicle for teaching historical methods and potentially help students recognize the need to apply those methods regardless of format, especially in a digital environment that encourages quick, superficial encounters with historical text.

1Maudie Jones, “Time Capsules Buried in the Library,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 40, no. 7 (April 1997): 564.
2See chapter 3 in Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).

Sociological Images Course Guides

In addition to sharing my own lesson plans and teaching experiences, Library Instruction Lagniappe seems like a good place to share links to other instruction resources I find.  So while I’m working on my next post, here’s an online resource you might find useful:

SocImages Course Guides.

If you’re not familiar with it, Sociological Images is a great site whose authors use imagery as a starting point for analysis and discussion of sociological issues.  It’s great reading in its own right, but also a great resource for classroom instructors.  The Course Guides are an effort to compile posts into categories typical of course offerings in sociology, and thereby help sociology faculty in adopting them in their teaching.

Librarians will find these useful as well.  When looking for new ways to engage my social sciences students in the research process, I often look to what kinds of hands-on instruction the faculty are using in their classrooms.  The journal Teaching Sociology is another great resource for this, and was extremely useful while designing the content analysis lesson plan described in my last post.  The authors of SocImages and Teaching Sociology are sociologists, so naturally they take the disciplinary content–sociological theory, topics, and methodology–as their starting point.  When I read these, I try to look past the content itself and think about the research skills students need to fully grasp the lesson, the library collections that could be used to pull it off, and the assumptions faculty (subject experts) might make about what their students (subject novices) already know.  With that in mind, I try to provide the materials and pedagogical support to make teaching and learning as successful as possible for students and instructors alike.

Speaking of experts and novices, that’s what I’m working on for the next post, so stay tuned for some thoughts on pedagogy.

Doing Content Analysis in a Building Full of Content

Two weeks ago I presented at the 2013 Forum of the NOLA Information Literacy Collective, our local gathering of academic instruction librarians in the Greater New Orleans area. I shared my experience developing an active learning session at the library to drive home a sociology professor’s lesson on content analysis methodology. The slides from my presentation are available online, and this post describes the lesson plan which readers can adopt and adapt in their own instruction.

For a little background, students in the sociology major are required to take a sequence of 3 courses early in their major career: a foundations course, a research design course, and a research analysis (a.k.a. statistics) course. Collaborating with faculty members, I’ve integrated information literacy instruction into this 3-course progression.1 In the foundations class, students learn to read an academic article and conduct basic searches in the database Sociological Abstracts in service of an annotated bibliography assignment. In research design, there are two library sessions: the first focuses on building a literature review, and the second had been an introduction to using and evaluating U.S. Census data. In the last course, the library session is about locating quantitative data sets. The lesson plan I’m about to describe replaced the second session in the research design class.

The professor wanted students in her class to be exposed to archival materials. In semesters past, her students had fixated on surveys as the preferred sociological methodology, and she wanted to promote qualitative analysis of existing materials. In order to assist in this goal, I first needed to familiarize myself with what archival materials meant in sociological research, so I consulted the sociology literature and read up on studies using content analysis methods. The professor and I corresponded and brainstormed on our goals and expectations for the session, and I came up with the following:

Before the session, students had homework: use Sociological Abstracts to find an article wherein the author uses content analysis methodology, read and evaluate it, and bring it to the library session. Students were given the hint to include “content analysis” in the Abstract field. This served both as a refresher on how to use the database, and modeled the use of content analysis by experts in the field.

To start the library session, I asked students to share two aspects of their located article: what was the content used by the author, and what sociological question did the author seek to answer? I listed on the board the types of content students identified, and the common themes among authors’ research questions. This helped students by showing them the realm of possibilities in content to be analyzed, and what sociological questions are appropriate and possible with this methodological approach. The professor also had the opportunity to ask follow up questions about students’ articles.

Then came the big reveal! I had a cart stacked with potential content: namely, print materials I had selected from the stacks. These included Caldecott award-winning children’s books, U.S. history textbooks from the 1980s and 1990s, published song lyrics from three disparate artists2, bound Life magazines from the 1950s, and recent issues of the photography magazine American Photo. I divided the students into 5 groups, assigned each group a content from the cart, and challenged them to work together to come up with a research proposal using content analysis on their assigned materials. Now they had the chance to practice the method they had only read about to this point, and by providing a content set to practice with, I removed the added challenge of conceptualizing and locating their own data set before they had a strong grasp of how to use it. (Watch for a future post on the relationship between finding and using information in student research assignments.)

After 10 to 12 minutes of group work, during which the professor and I circulated to offer encouragement and assistance as needed, I asked for a representative from each group to describe their content to the class and share the research proposal they came up with, emphasizing how they would apply content analysis methodology and the sociological question they intended to address. The exercise was a great success! Students were able to articulate the use of content analysis methods and generated interesting sociological research questions. The professor asked follow up questions that related back to their initial class lecture and readings on the method, and she later reported back to me that students seemed to “get it” both in subsequent class meetings and later on the exam. Thus we were able to assess students’ learning both in their reporting back to the class in the library session, and in the formalized space of their exam responses.

The sequence of assignments and activities here was designed to provide some scaffolding for the students as they learned to do content analysis. Scaffolding—a pedagogical metaphor often attributed to Jerome Bruner—is a method of breaking down the distance between novices and experts by creating stages through which students can work, taking into account what they can do on their own, what they can do with assistance, and what might still lie beyond the learning horizon.3 In this lesson plan, we first modeled for them what content analysis is and looks like in the discipline through their class readings and lecture, and then in finding their own example of a sociologist using the methodology. Then we worked as a class to list types of content and research questions typical of the methodology. Then working in small groups students could rely on each other during the hands-on challenge, giving students who already grasped the concept to help along those who weren’t quite there. Finally, with hands-on practice under their belts, students could demonstrate their conceptual grasp of the method and its application individually on the exam.

This lesson plan based on content analysis methodology in sociology could be applied in any disciplinary context using primary source materials. It’s also a means of showcasing interesting collections in the library while avoiding a dry show-and-tell presentation. Students will become aware of library sources by using them in service of a real learning goal, and not just for the sake of the materials themselves. This approach also demonstrates to faculty members that library instruction is more than just learning how to search, but can be a space for active engagement with library materials in support of their disciplinary content and learning goals. I encourage readers to adopt and adapt the content analysis library session, and come back to share how it went.

1. For more on this sequenced information literacy program, see my article “Beyond the One-Shot: Advantages of a Programmatic Approach to Information Literacy Instruction,” ANSS Currents 27 no. 2 (Fall 2012): 23-26 (
2. The song lyrics were three published collections: Hank Williams, Paul Simon, and John Denver.
3. See for example, David Wood, Jerome S. Bruner, and Gail Ross, “The Role of Tutoring in Problem Solving,”
Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry 17, no. 2 (1976): 89-100.

“Library Orientation” for Graduate Students

It’s one week into the new semester, and I’ve already hosted 3 groups of graduate students for “library orientations.”  Since this often happens at the start of the academic year, it seems an appropriate first post about instruction. I prefer for information literacy instruction to coincide with a research assignment, scheduled close enough to the due date for students to be ready to research. The beginning of the year is not that time. I can usually fend off requests for undergraduate instruction until later by making the case that most of them write their papers 1-2 days before the due date.1 That’s a harder sell when it comes to graduate students. And while it may be true that the grad students aren’t as afflicted with procrastination as the undergrads (although I have my doubts), I’m fairly certain they aren’t thinking about library research the same week they moved into their new apartment, met new people, went over a few syllabi and then proceeded to question their life choices.

So how to handle an orientation divorced from real research activity? Tour the building? No. No one cares where the microforms room is unless they need to look at a particular reel of microfilm. (Don’t fret microform aficionados; I’ll defend the format pedagogically in a future post.) Demonstrations of databases I think they’ll need eventually? I pity the student who has to sit through that. Decline all requests for library orientations? Tempting, but that’s not very politic. And I concede, there are a few things graduate students should probably know from the start of their academic journey.

I first consider what do I know about these graduate students? They bring with them some set of research experiences. They demonstrated sufficient academic skills and potential to be accepted into grad school. Presumably not everyone in the group went to the same undergrad institution, so they’ve had a diverse educational background in research skills and subject matter, and are not on the same page. They are passionate about some academic topic, which is why they came to graduate school, but everyone’s passion will be different. And most, if not all, will be new to my institution.

Second, what do graduate students need to know about the library and graduate-level research to succeed? Some things are time sensitive, like signing up for one of the limited graduate carrels available. They are about to be bombarded with an amount of reading to which they are not accustomed. And they may not know it, but they just entered the unique and unpredictable political arena of their academic department, with personal and administrative idiosyncrasies that developed long before they got to this place.

And that’s how I lesson plan an orientation. I’ve thought about what they know, what they need to know in the first few weeks, and that’s what I want to cover. I don’t try to prepare them for the entirety of their graduate careers in one session. Not possible given the short time, the diversity of the crowd, and I don’t have all the answers anyway.

I start with services. While demonstrating where this information is on the library website, I tell them to sign up for a research carrel, I tell them how many books they can check out and other special borrowing privileges, and emphasize that InterLibrary Loan (ILL) is their friend. I also talk about me; I will buy the books they want, help them track down obscure citations, and be available when they need to sit down and work through their research hurdles one-on-one. And I throw in where the Music & Media Center is for when they need to take a break with DVD episodes of Treme or some of the latest from “Trombone” Shorty. (Look him up, he’s great.)

I can’t let them leave without talking about the catalog and databases, but they’re not actually researching. So I couch it in something else. If I have enough time, I make it a session on citation management software. Zotero is my favorite, and graduate students are pretty receptive to this kind of tool early on. So while they see the wonders of citation management, they’re also seeing the important article database in their discipline (no, it’s not JSTOR), and the catalog. That means they see how to get full text with our link resolvers, and how the stacks are organized without the accusations they didn’t already know this, or embarrassment at having to ask this late in their schooling lives.

If there’s not much time allotted, I skip Zotero but at least show them where I put the LibGuide for their discipline, and the helpful links it contains. I do give them pointers on keeping current and keeping up with the scholarship they need to be a part of. I talk about reading book reviews, setting up e-mail notifications to new issues of their important journals, and knowing what their professors have published and reviewed. Not that they should cite their advisor in every paper they write, but they certainly don’t want to miss that citation when it’s warranted. And that will make scholarly conversations in the hallway that much easier.

And that’s it. I can’t always hit all these notes in one session, and if I have covered all this then they’ve probably absorbed everything they can. I keep it loose and informal, not as structured as a lesson plan for undergrads. I account for their previous experiences and knowledge by engaging with them as colleagues, not students, and I try to address their immediate needs. I know what they’re going through, having been there myself, and I’m here to help.

Coming soon: My presentation at the NOLA Information Literacy Collective Forum 2013 about content analysis in sociology, primary sources, and hands-on learning with print resources at the library.  There will be lagniappe!

1Head, Alison J., and Michael B. Eisenberg, “Finding Context: What Today’s College Student Say about Conducting Research in the Digital Age,” Project Information Literacy Progress Report (Information School, University of Washington, 2009): 7.

The School Year Begins…

And so does this blog. I’ve been a librarian for 2 years now, and as an instruction librarian I’ve written a lot of lesson plans, created worksheets, assembled LibGuides, and participated in professional conferences. I enjoy chatting with other librarians about what’s worked and what hasn’t in my classroom, and hearing about their experiences in information literacy instruction. Many times this conversation circles around to ways of sharing each others’ lesson plans and learning objects, but even within professional organizations it seems hard to get these projects off the ground.

So I decided to go the grassroots, self-publishing route and share my ideas–the theory and the practice–with those who are interested. But this blog comes with a little lagniappe. As I post about pedagogy in libraries and my experiences in the classroom, I’ll also include lesson plans and learning objects that my readers can adopt and adapt in their own instruction efforts. I hope this will help librarians looking for instruction ideas, and inspire others to share their creations and enhance information literacy instruction in libraries.