Methods to Use Digital Resources to Teach Primary Sources

By Amy Chen
January 2016

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Using digital resources for teaching primary source analysis can enrich your pedagogy, whether you are a subject specialist or a librarian, by suggesting new ideas for lessons and fresh approaches to existing curricula. As the options for working with primary sources online are extensive, the resources and methods described here are among the most accessible choices. For example, many major repositories offer lessons on primary source analysis tailored to their digital content. Use their activities as a template to inspire assignments with your home institution’s holdings. Then you can develop a supplemental project using digital timelines to allow students to place the materials into a historical context. Once students are ready to conduct research, guides created by library staff teach research methods as well as specialized vocabulary. If students wish to publicize their work, blog posts allow them to see how public scholarship differs from formal, academic writing and social media expand public scholarship’s audience even further. As students generally perceive social media to be intuitive and fun, these platforms motivate them to work with difficult material. Each of these approaches will allow your pedagogy to evolve without requiring significant alterations to your current teaching practices.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 If you have not worked with digital resources for teaching primary sources before, one of the easiest ways to begin is to adapt existing online curricula. Many national repositories create teaching kits with textual and visual analysis lessons keyed to their collections. You can repurpose these activities to create new assignments for your local repository’s holdings or expand them to include both their resources and yours. If your students view original objects from a local repository, this can provide an opportunity to have a conversation about the differences between accessing content on and offline. The majority of the teaching kits are aimed at K-12 populations, usually middle and high school students. But this earlier focus does not mean that these materials cannot be used in college classrooms; rather, they can be modified to suit undergraduate subject requirements and skill levels. For example, consider:

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The power of tailoring existing online curricula is that you can learn from the teaching programs at these libraries, increasing the likelihood that your class sessions will be successful. Approaches like the Library of Congress’s Primary Source Sets limit the amount of options a student has to consider, allowing them to focus on the items with the richest interpretative possibilities, with the side benefit of helping you narrow the topics to be discussed.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Learning to contextualize a single document within a broader historical framework is one of the most common learning objectives for students to master when working with primary sources. Digital timelines are a particularly effective way to allow students to visualize how movements and eras unfold. For instance, a prospective assignment would have students view example timelines and then create their own. Some useful examples to share for this lesson might include:

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Once your students are ready to create a timeline, a wide variety of tools are available to assist them. The most popular options are either the Google docs-based Timeline Widget from the SIMILE project from MIT or Neatline, both of which are used within the digital humanities community. Alternatively, assigning readings from these timelines may help students understand similar local holdings. For example, “The Origins of Writing,” a thematic essay provided by the Heilbrunn Timeline, introduces students to the cuneiform tablets that are the earliest objects in many university collections. Creating timelines would take more time within your course, while assigning readings from timelines would be a simpler way to introduce this type of content. However, both approaches are helpful because they use a specific tool to illuminate a common learning objective.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 After students can analyze documents and put them into context, the next step is to learn how to conduct research using primary sources. While visiting the LibGuides written by librarians at your own institution or at other universities is a great way to begin, a few more specialized resources on primary sources you might want to share with your students are:

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Additionally, guides on specialized topics created by librarians, conservators, and archivists reiterate the value of consulting different professional perspectives. Consider students working on a project about the history of the book. Ideally, they would learn how to identify historical bookbinding structures. In order to do so, students first could review one of the following online guides:

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 Then, you could create a quiz to test their retention of this terminology. Finally, you might schedule a visit to special collections. By coordinating your visit with your collections’ instruction librarian, you could collaborate to design an assignment where students match these terms to features from items in your holdings. This final hands-on exercise would ensure that students could apply their newly acquired vocabulary before employing it in their research.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Once students master the necessary analytical, contextual, and research skills, it is time to consider how digital resources allow students to share their scholarship. Blogs are the most straightforward way to publicize new work on a topic, as they provide an opportunity for immediate publication and comments as a mechanism to solicit feedback. However, writing for the web is different from writing a standard research paper. If students need to see models for blogging, most repositories run blogs that provide cultural history on topics related to their holdings. For instance, the Ransom Center’s Cultural Compass blog publishes posts on topics like Anne Frank and the archive, Eric Colleary’s description of the publication history of The Diary of Anne Frank. The Beinecke Library at Yale runs a number of blogs on collections ranging from American literature to African American studies. If students are writing about local collections, you might consider asking the repository to publish your students’ work, perhaps within a feature dedicated to pedagogy. A way to cut down on the number of blog posts publicized by one repository would be to run an I Found it in the Archives!style contest to which students could submit their posts. If a university blog is not an option, or if you wanted to limit the audience that could see your students’ work, try creating your own blog. Either route offers publication as a lure to motivate students through the research and composition process. To emphasize the distinction between different writing genres, you also could ask students to write both a traditional paper and a blog post.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Subscribing to a repository’s social media feed can allow students to become more familiar with their holdings, compare and contrast items from their home institution with those held elsewhere, or analyze how a specific library engages in public outreach. However, when considering using social media in the classroom, it is important to consider that because each outlet claims a slightly different function and set of users, cultural heritage institutions select platforms that best suit their collections, followers, and staff interests. They may use a variety of platforms to find a diverse audience, but some institutions may engage in only one or a few of the available options due to their internal priorities. It never hurts to check out the most popular platforms—Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Tumblr—but don’t forget more specialized options like Pinterest, Flickr, Vine, or even Snapchat. You might find it more useful to follow a variety of platforms from the same repository, a variety of repositories on the same platform, or different repositories on different platforms, depending on your learning objectives.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 However, social media feeds are the most powerful in the classroom when they become another route to share scholarship. Their limited format may require students to focus on the collections they used rather than their analysis, but this doesn’t need to limit their pedagogical impact.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 Significant projects on collections ranging from the medieval to the modern exist. Consider the following models for student work:

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 0 These examples can be employed to show how a social media stream can be curated in order to highlight a particular type of item or a collection. Roman de la Rose tweets lines from the medieval poem and features images from different manuscripts of the same text. The Hevelin Collection posts images from a collection undergoing digitization. If your repository allows it, students could create their own handles to emulate one of these two projects. Alternatively, students could use social media to update their classmates on their research progress or present their work once it is completed. The latter example would allow a curator of a social media feed to function similarly to the curator of an exhibition, as both would generate an argument or story through the material they select to share.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 0 Consider the needs of your students and the amount of time you can allocate to a lesson when choosing which digital resources and approaches to use. If you want to ensure that an approach will work, you can adapt existing online curricula to suit your local materials and your course’s learning objectives, which saves you the time of creating a primary source analysis activity from scratch. If you want to focus on a specific tool, or if you need your students to contextualize individual items within a broader historical period, consider digital timelines. A variety of resources are available online to teach research methods with primary sources for more advanced students, and online glossaries can be useful for those needing to employ specialized vocabulary. Blogs model how public scholarship differs from traditional academic composition, while social media give students the opportunity to reach an even wider audience. Although each of these digital methods may be relatively introductory, the lessons created from these approaches nevertheless can generate a powerful effect when used in the classroom.

Methods to Use Digital Resources to Teach Primary Sources

Amy Chen

Special Collections Librarian – University of Iowa

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