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.

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 (http://anssacrl.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/anss-currents-fall-2012-1.pdf).
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.

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.