Putting the Draft Guidelines on Primary Source Literacy into Practice
Sarah M. Horowitz
¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In the last ten years, teaching with primary materials has increased exponentially, both by librarians in special collections and archives, and by teaching faculty using either special-collections materials or digital archives. This has led to numerous conversations about best practices for such teaching, and what it is that we are trying to teach when we use primary materials in the classroom. Out of these conversations—and parallel ones about the importance of assessment, standards, and measures for special collections (a trend within the library field as a whole)—grew the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries/Society of American Archivists Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. The guidelines present core ideas and learning objectives for those using and teaching primary sources. They are currently in their second draft, and are being revised for completion this summer.1
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 While it is possible to use an objective exactly as it appears in the guidelines, more often it will need to be adapted, whether due to the goals of the specific class situation, the level of experience the students in the class have with primary sources, or the project the class is addressing. Since faculty have their own goals, for both the course and for the way in which they are using primary sources, developing class learning objectives is often a co-creative process. The task force was very clear that we wanted the guidelines to be welcoming to all, from librarians/archivists to faculty to K-12 teachers, and one of the hopes is that the document will be used as a starting point in these conversations and to facilitate the co-creation of class objectives.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 As a member of this task force, I have been thinking about how to integrate these best practices into my everyday teaching, and have used the guidelines to reflect on and refine my teaching practices. I usually co-create objectives for a class session in consultation and conversation with the faculty member teaching the class; this includes their goals for the session and how it relates to their class as a whole. If the faculty member is focused on the subject matter of the class, such as students learning about the role of missionaries in the life of the Seneca Nation in the early United States, I might also encourage including an objective about how the different forms and formats of the materials were designed to educate both future missionaries and those funding and overseeing their work. This enables us to both fulfill the content objectives of a session while also engaging with the primary sources as material objects.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 When I teach with primary sources, I want students to spend time engaging with and interrogating the materials available to them, rather than listening to me talk about them. Thus, I often use the objectives I have for a class to develop guiding questions for students to consider as they work with materials. These questions then serve to guide class discussion. For example, this past fall, I worked with a number of classes that were concerned with issues surrounding document creation, audience, and the reception of material, all ideas and skills that take on even greater importance in the current media and political climate. The guidelines include the following objective: “Critically interrogate the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source.” I adapted this objective into guiding questions such as “How and why was this document created? What evidence do you see? Can you determine anything about the creator?” and “Describe the implied audience for these materials. What informs your opinion?” Such questions are always based on the materials that the class will be interrogating, as well as the topic and goals of the course itself and the students’ level of experience.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 One objective that the task force felt very strongly about including relates to archival silences and the interconnectedness of power and gaps in the cultural record. The guidelines indicate that users of primary sources should “[i]dentify, interrogate, and consider the reasons for silences, gaps, contradictions, and power relationships in the documentary record, and their impact on the research process.” This is an area in which I want to teach more systematically and think further about how we measure student understanding of this concept. It is difficult for many students to grasp the multiple potential meanings behind a lack of documentation, and a difficult concept to measure. For instance, we have numerous personal papers of aid workers with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), which often provides relief aid in war zones or after conflicts. Many of these Americans write movingly about how their activities impacted the communities in which they worked, which range from Germany to Algeria, but we have very few materials from communities themselves detailing their reactions to foreign-aid workers. While this lack of a particular voice is not usually the first thing to occur to students, I try to encourage them to consider what voices are not there, why that might be the case, and how the story they are seeing might be different if those voices were present. These conversations, hopefully, lead them to think more deeply about what the materials they do have represent, and how they weave into a larger narrative.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 No one class can cover everything in the guidelines, and some objectives may not be appropriate for a certain class. But I hope that in teaching a wide range of classes to students in a variety of disciplines and levels, I would cover many if not all of the guidelines’ concepts. Going forward, I plan to explore what other objectives and core ideas I touch on only implicitly or do not teach at all. Thus, I can use the guidelines to find the strengths as well as address the gaps in my own teaching.
Sarah M. Horowitz
Curator of Rare Books & Manuscripts and Head of Quaker & Special Collections – Haverford College