Primary Colors: My presentation at LOEX 2014

The LOEX 2014 conference has just ended, and I wanted to make sure folks that attended my presentation could access my slides:  Click the title below to download the PowerPoint, or access my slides on SlideShare.

Primary Colors: The Art of Teaching & Learning with Primary Sources in the Library

Thanks to everyone that attended my discussion of teaching with primary sources in the library! I’ll post again soon with my takeaways from this great library instruction conference.


Teaching with Primary Sources and the Library of Congress

A few weeks ago librarians converged upon Philadelphia, PA for the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter conference. It was great to reconnect with colleagues from around the country, I made good progress on my committee work, and I was able to attend some interesting discussion groups.

Another highlight for me came from the Library of Congress, which had a booth in the vender area and hosted a series of short presentations throughout each day. This is where I met Cheryl Lederle-Ensign, Educational Resource Specialist at the LOC, and attended her presentation, “Layer After Layer of Awesome”: The Teaching with Primary Sources Program.  In addition to digitizing a wealth of historical documents and images for easy online access, the good folks at the LOC also want to support teachers in using these online resources. Cheryl and her colleagues have curated digital collections into themes, written lesson plans and teaching aids, and also sponsor professional development for elementary and secondary teachers.

I introduced myself to Cheryl before the presentation began, and her enthusiasm was infectious; she was so pleased I had arrived specifically for her talk. Several school librarians were also in attendance, and while they had plenty of questions during the session, I remained quiet and took notes. At the end, as the others gathered their things to leave, Cheryl thanked me for sitting through the whole presentation, perhaps thinking I wasn’t her target audience but had been too polite to leave early.

On the contrary, I insisted. The wealth of materials the Library of Congress has assembled to help elementary and secondary teachers integrate primary sources into their teaching are based on the same pedagogical scholarship and goals that informs my current efforts with undergraduate history students. Freshmen and sophomores are not so different from high school juniors and seniors, and university professors who assume their undergraduates already know how to analyze and incorporate primary sources in their writing are likely to be disappointed with the results.  Cheryl and I chatted about pedagogy in history teaching, and I learned that much of the LOC’s education outreach is built on the scholarship of Sam Wineburg and his colleagues; Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group is also a member of the LOC’s Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium. Cheryl was very interested to hear about my experiments in library instruction in our new history methods course, and was glad to hear that my teaching methods are also based on Wineburg’s pedagogy.

Cheryl and I agreed that the responsibility for teaching students to analyze and think critically about historical documents, images, and artifacts belongs to educators at all levels. The Teacher Resources that Cheryl and her colleagues have assembled, while marketed to K-12 teachers, provide us all with valuable pedagogical support for that mission. Librarians and archivists in higher education should engage with the teaching materials that accompany the Library of Congress’s online collections, and work to incorporate not just the collections, but also the pedagogical theory and practice of teaching with primary sources in our work with students and faculty.

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.