Category Archives: Teaching & Learning Course

Final Project: Thinking Historically about Primary Sources

Thinking Historically about Primary Sources is my final project for the Teaching & Learning History in the Digital Age course. Below is my essay explaining the process of creating the project.

My final project is a LibGuide that focuses on helping students think about primary sources (and really, any source) historically and contextually. This is something I often talk about in both undergraduate and graduate library research instruction sessions, but I hadn’t really figured out a way to talk about it clearly and systematically. I often would describe how primary sources might not exist, might not be accessible, might not be translated, or might not say what you would like them to say, and suggest that students remain somewhat open in terms of their topic, approach, and argument until finding, accessing, and analyzing primary sources.

The guide provides a framework for thinking about primary sources historically and contextually – what I call the primary source lifecycle. There are moments where the lifecycle can be broken or interrupted, as well as other barriers that can stand in the way of finding and accessing primary sources. I included both because I want students to have some sort of model for thinking about primary sources but also to appreciate the complexity of their histories and to confront the idea that the historical record is fragmentary and incomplete. Wineburg’s idea of the jagged edges of history has stayed with me throughout this semester, and I think the idea that not everything is knowable, that there is always uncertainty when studying history is something students often struggle and are uncomfortable with. The primary source lifecycle, with all its caveats, is an attempt to “uncover,” in Calder’s terminology, that uncertainty, specifically in regards to primary sources, but also in regards to history more broadly. Highlighting uncertainty might also help students grapple with understanding historical writing as interpretation and argument instead of objectively describing what happened. Wineburg talks about the strangeness, otherness of history, of “what we cannot see” and “the congenital blurriness of our vision;” getting students to think about what they can and cannot know, and the reasons behind that, helps convey this.

The guide includes three case studies that speak to the complex histories of primary sources: silent film, medieval bestiaries, and early American books. These are all histories I have some familiarity with, although I did spend some time researching each of them in order to find relevant readings and to develop good questions. When I initially conceived of this project, I had hoped to also incorporate some content around how information systems have histories and must be understood contextually, but as I began working on it, this element felt unwieldy and really like a distinct project. However, I did try to bring some aspects of this topic out in the case studies, and made sure to include “record creation” in the primary source lifecycle. This topic is also something I regularly talk about in my instruction sessions, and unlike the topic of my final project, it is something I have repeatedly thought through and could probably talk about while asleep.

Each case study includes readings and websites to explore and a series of questions. I tried to embed the primary sources themselves in the guide to encourage students to explore them as well, because I want them to experience their strangeness for themselves. The first case study is of silent film. The readings include a description of the Edison film collection at the Library of Congress, a record for a specific film, and a couple of short articles on how and why most silent films are gone forever. The description of the collection points to the contingency of what objects survive; the collection exists because of copyright rules at the time. The record highlights the need for record creation and the constructedness of information systems. The articles provide context about what might have happened to similar objects. The questions ask students to sketch the lifecycles of both the Edison films and silent films more broadly, to consider interruptions in those lifecycles, to think about how the incompleteness of the historical record affects what we know, and to think about how what happened to silent film might inform how we approach a perhaps even more ephemeral medium, digital film and video.

The second case study again emphasizes the framework of the primary source lifecycle, but also builds on the first case study. It is a comparison of two medieval bestiaries. The Northumberland bestiary was preserved by the Duke of Northumberland for 700 years but then sold to a private collector. The Getty recently purchased it from the collector and then digitized it as part of its Open Content Program. The Aberdeen bestiary, in contrast, seems to have been in the same location since its creation and its digital version is much more extensive (that is, it includes an in-depth history of the object, comparison to similar bestiaries, and the manuscript has been translated and transcribed and is searchable). The readings include one article on the history of the Northumberland that focuses on its history and accessibility, the About page for the Getty Open Content program, and the websites for both bestiaries, which students are to explore on their own. The questions again have students sketch out the lifecycles of both bestiaries, and also to think about the work that a program Getty Open Content does in regards to findability and accessibility. The final question asks students to pay attention to the functionality of the web versions of both bestiaries. I included this to help get at the different pieces of digitization, the labor involved, and how those decisions can impact the ways in which digital surrogates can be used. This is part of my effort to destabilize information systems particularly and information technology more broadly.

The third and final case study is of the Evans bibliography, which eventually became the Readex database, Early American Imprints, Series 1. The readings include the Wikipedia entry on Charles Evans, marketing materials from Readex, and a review of the Readex database from History Matters. Students are also asked to explore the Readex website, the Text Creation Partnership version of the website, and digitized volumes of the American Bibliography on Hathitrust. This case study also asks students to outline the lifecycles of these materials, but it is more complicated and confusing than the other two case studies. Like the bestiaries case study, it also asks students to carefully examine the different features of information systems – the Readex database, the TCP version, and Hathitrust – in order to denaturalize them, and to think about how projects like the TCP affect the primary source lifecycle. I like this example because it also highlights the history of information systems themselves, as the Evans collection moves from print bibliography to full-text microfilm to full-text online database and almost full-text online bibliography. Finally, this case study emphasizes the ethical questions around digitizing material, charging for access, and copyright. Some volumes of the American Bibliography are still in copyright and so not available on Hathitrust or Internet Archive. The History Matters review strongly questions Readex’s position that it is expanding access, when the database is so expensive and out of reach for many institutions. The ethos of the TCP is very different and the TCP also provides another model for doing these sorts of mass digitization projects. I obviously have opinions about this, but the goal of this case study is merely for students to start becoming familiar with and thinking about these ethical issues.

I also developed six additional prompts focused on primary sources that are more open-ended and require students to research the materials on their own. These do not include readings and the questions are less targeted. Like the case studies, these prompts emphasize the lifecycle and contingency of sources, denaturalizing and destabilizing information systems, the ethics of commercial digitization and copyright, and non-profit models of digitization and access. The case studies and prompts also help familiarize students with some of the primary source resources available online and introduce the many different primary sources they can work with. I would also hope that the guide would spark curiosity and interest in using the sources.

The core themes and questions of my final project are issues that I have been mulling over for some time, but this is the first time I’ve tried to articulate a coherent approach. The case studies are appropriate in scope for my instruction sessions, but given the other material I generally need to cover in those sessions, they might work better as homework. Although this LibGuide does spend some time on information systems, I would like to develop a similar guide that more closely focuses on information systems and concepts such as metadata and the history of indices and databases.

Projects: Other Peoples’ and My Own

The videos were quite helpful in both practical and theoretical ways. Sleeter reminded me that I originally conceived of my final project in terms of “uncovering” the history and context of primary sources and library systems. Wieringa and Sharpe talked about working backwards from the overarching learning objectives, which I think will be helpful for me, as those are much more defined for me right now. Sleeter also talked about how he wanted his site to model historical thinking, which is also helpful because I keep getting fixated on how my site won’t be as interactive as my library instruction sessions usually are; it’s enough to frame it as modeling and moving students toward historical thinking. My instructional goals are usually fairly modest, but I seem to think this project needs to do way more. Practically, it was good to hear that these students ended up scaling their projects back some, or that it didn’t turn out exactly the way they wanted. I’m trying to focus more on it being proof of concept, so hearing that other students had to do the same thing was helpful. These videos will probably help me procrastinate less on the final project, more than anything else (maybe we should have watched them earlier?).

The Malleable Past

The increasing prevalence of digital media has made it easier to teach about the past in several ways. Primary source material is more widely accessible (bearing in mind that the digital divide continues to exist) and so students can engage with it much more often. I recall my American history class in high school, where our only access to primary sources was through print collections, and think about how different it might have been with the types of materials that are available online (whether in commercial or open databases) today. Most of the undergraduate classes I work with in my current position have to find and closely engage with primary sources. Working directly with primary sources is closer to what historians actually do, and I think helps students practice “historical thinking” as well as become more comfortable with the “jagged edges” of the past.  

On the other hand, the increasing prevalence of digital media also makes it more difficult to teach about the past. Primary source materials disappear from the web; they have crappy metadata and so are impossible to find. They are siloed in expensive commercial databases or in hundreds of separate institutional collections. And the fact that some primary source materials are online often leads students (and some faculty) into thinking that *everything* is online, even though the bulk of these materials have not been digitized, will never be digitized, and will be lucky to get cataloged. This sense that anything that’s important is digital leads to reductive assertions that studying books digitized through Google is studying “human culture,” which leaves out so, so much. This is also seen in the how Wikipedia (while good for many things) tends towards superficiality and the erasure of controversy, disagreements, and debates within a field (this concerns me more than the malleability, frankly). And finally, the mere presence and accessibility of primary source materials doesn’t automatically lead to good historical thinking. Students still need the procedural knowledge, in Lévesque’s terminology, to be able to meaningfully work with those primary sources.

Fifth Piece of the Puzzle

I might not end up using exactly this text in my final project, but I would like to use a text for which I can find a little bit of information about its provenance/history. I like the Northumberland Bestiary because of its subject matter, and also because it has only been digitized. There is metadata for it, but it’s not very informative, but there is no transcription or translation of the text. There is also this article about the manuscript, with this tidbit: “The Northumberland Bestiary was originally owned by the Duke of Northumberland, but in 1990 was sold to a private collector. In 2007 the Getty Museum purchase the manuscript for a reported $20 million (US).” This is a pretty straightforward history, but also raises questions about how it survived for as long as it did and why it was sold. With this text (and there are definitely other possibilities that I might also include), I want to help students think through the histories of primary sources, the effort that has to be made to preserve them, how they function as commodities, and the labor that goes into making them findable. 


from the Northumberland bestiary

Film and Historical Thinking

I actually had to go back and read what I had written about historical thinking (I’m battling post-vacation brain and am also leaving for a conference on Thursday, so I’m a bit preoccupied). In the previous module, following Pegler-Gordon, I talked about using images to get at the complexity of history, and I think film also does this in several ways. It’s hard to describe, but I feel like film is visceral in a way that texts are usually not. It can be more immersive, and that can help students think about the past without engaging in presentism. Film doesn’t dissolve the “jagged edges” of the past, but I think it can make them easier to approach, if that makes sense.

Both fiction and non-fiction film can provide students with details about material culture of the time, even if it is somewhat stylized. Both can speak to ideology, dominant discourse, power relations, and so on, or what Seixas calls the “moral frame” of the time period/culture in which they were produced (Toplin is rather negative about cultural/media studies approaches, but I tend to approach films as texts and with the understanding that they have numerous, contradictory meanings, and that those meanings aren’t constrained by the creator’s intentions. Nor do audiences necessarily receive the same meanings or those intended by the creator). This approach, which I used in classes I taught as a graduate student, is approaching film as primary sources for historical research.

Most of the readings, however, are about using historical films to teach about historical narrative and representation, and really about the way we construct history. This is really apparent in how one of Seixas’s students, once she had seen The Searchers, began to understand the previously transparent moral frame of Dances With Wolves as historical and contextual as well. This intellectual move is crucial to historical thinking, and might also be considered a threshold concept, since it undergirds historical work and is likely to be transformative. (As a sidebar, I thought it was funny how everyone hated The Searchers, because it’s an amazing film that really speaks to the Western as a genre, nationalism, and race).

The other element of teaching history with film that might deepen historical inquiry has to do with emotion and empathy. I can’t remember which author wrote about this, but Wineburg probably touched on it, but I think that film (and as Zemon Davis describes, poetry, and also other forms of literature) might help us empathize with people from the past. Zemon Davis specifically mentions Passion of Jeanne d’Arc, which I think does this beautifully (and medieval history is particularly alien). I can’t think of other films at the moment that do this, but literary examples readily come to mind: Beloved, The Things They Carried, The Night Watch, Hild. Obviously, these fictional representations are not totally “accurate” or “true,” but the empathic engagement with the past that they induce is valuable.

Third Piece of the Puzzle: Audience

The audience for my project is undergraduate students, both history majors and non-majors. I would also like to make the project interesting and relevant for graduate students in history or doing historical research in other fields. I primarily work with undergraduates and there are many more of them. It would also be nice to actually use this project for some of the large introductory history classes I teach for – because they’re so large, I generally have to lecture, and it would be good to have them do some sort of activity prior to that lecture. I would also like the final project to be accessible to graduate students, because not all of them were history majors or had to write senior theses, and the same sorts of issues around primary sources confuse them. The results of this confusion are usually much worse, too. It’s usually along the lines of “but I need it for my last dissertation chapter” and the archive that held those documents was bombed during WWII.

Second Piece of the Puzzle

The central question of my final project is:

How can I help students think about 1. finding and accessing primary sources and 2. library systems historically and contextually?

I already do try to teach students about this to some extent, albeit around the primary topic, which is usually how to find primary and secondary sources for their papers or projects. Knowing something about the history and context of information systems is extremely helpful in using them. I think for my final project, I’ll focus solely on finding primary sources and address information systems along the way.

In terms of the content, I would want to start with some basic information organization theory and history (e.g. what is a record and why do we need them). Then move on to (very brief) histories of library/information systems, because that explains so much about why they work the way they do (e.g. metadata, controlled vocabulary). When I’ve done this in classes before, I would show examples that they see everyday. I would then move to primary sources more specifically and what I would really like to do is have several examples of primary sources, their history, and basically how they ended up where they did (they could be destroyed before they ended up anywhere, too). I generally don’t talk about this at length, but I do discuss OCR and metadata specifically in regards to primary source databases.  

I’m a bit stumped on format. In a perfect world, I would like to plot the primary sources’ course through space and time on something like Neatline, but I don’t think I’ll have the time to do the research and figure out Neatline this semester. I could include a mapping piece using Google Maps, though. I’m also not entirely sure how to make an assignment out of it. I can see an exhibition/presentation part easily, but I don’t want it to only be that. All of my instruction sessions are in-person and involve a fair amount of back-and-forth, and I’m not sure how to recreate that online.

The History of History Teaching

There have been two contradictory elements at the heart of history teaching since the beginning of the twentieth century, only one of which gets at historical thinking as Wineburg describes it. The first element is an approach to history teaching that emphasizes the “facts,” memorization, or covering content. This is seen in the AHA Group of Seven’s “four block program,” (most) textbooks, the survey course as traditionally conceived and taught at all levels, and history as taught in K-12. This is the sort of history that is easily able to be assessed, even, as Wineburg notes, those assessments are inaccurate. This is also the sort of history that plays into history as “heritage,” national myth, or warnings about the cultural illiteracy of today’s youth, as it is not rooted in evidence.

The second element at the heart of history teaching is essentially teaching students how to do what historians do, whether that is called historical thinking (Wineburg), historical-mindedness (AHA’s Group of Seven), “New History,” (Becker), or procedural knowledge (Levesque). I think Kelly’s list of 15 items in “Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past” succinctly articulates what exactly goes into this, while McKlymer’s assignments provide concrete examples. McKlymer also exemplifies how some history teachers have responded to recent technological change, primarily through a much closer engagement with primary source materials at the undergraduate level, even in a survey class. McKlymer emphasizes the abundance of resources and the ease of accessing them, but I also think he somewhat de-emphasizes (or at least doesn’t highlight) the amount of thought he puts into designing the course, classroom discussions, and assignments, and how much interpersonal work he puts into making students feel okay about not getting everything right. He does actually spend some time talking about the latter, and this is particularly important in relation to current testing regimes, especially in K-12 education. There can be an abundance of resources that are easy to find and use, but having students use primary sources in order to learn how to do what historians do is not something that can be quantified or put into a multiple choice test. McKlymer’s description of the work he puts into making his classes work also emphasizes another continuity; good teaching requires effort and thought, and is fundamentally interpersonal.  

First Piece of the Puzzle: Project Brainstorm

I am hoping to be able to orient my final project around the final two questions in the previous post: How can I help students think historically and contextually about 1. finding and accessing primary sources and 2. using library systems? I basically want to create some sort of project that helps students and other users “think historically” about these two components of library research. I hope that makes some sense and isn’t completely tautological. This project emerges from my nine (!) years an academic librarian. I have been asked about finding the following materials:

  • Economic data from pre-Columbian Inuit societies
  • Recordings of pre-World War I amateur radio broadcasts
  • Local news broadcasts from small cities, dating from the 1950s to the 1970s
  • Meeting minutes, political endorsements, election results, newspaper editorials and other election-related materials from 25 small Canadian towns (e.g. Moose Jaw, SK) from 1910 to 1990
  • Primary source materials related to obscure Eastern European composers, translated into English
  • A copy of the IRA’s field operations manual

This is the tip of the iceberg – I have mostly remembered these for the ludicrousness, as in each case, the student or faculty member (no, these are not all undergraduates) expected these materials to be available, not merely in an archive or national library, but digitally (with the exception of the IRA field manual – that was just requested via ILL). There is no sense here of the historical nature of sources: that they need to have been created, that someone had to make a decision to preserve them somehow, that the technologies for preserving them existed and were accessible, that they need to have survived until now (fires, floods, and war tend to destroy materials), that they need to have some sort of record (MARC record, finding aid) to make them findable in an index or database, that someone needed to be interested in them enough to spend money and time on digitizing and hosting them, that someone wanted to spend the money and time on translating them into English, that they are not in copyright and can be digitized, and any number of other contingencies that need to fall into place. Primary sources have histories, and those histories cannot be disentangled from their current form.

Of course, all kinds of texts have histories, and understanding this is part of the larger goal of ACRL’s Framework for Information Literacy in Higher Education, as is understanding that library systems also have histories and those histories figure into what they do and how they work. “Uncovering” these histories is crucial to using them effectively and also transferring that knowledge to other information systems and contexts. Library catalogs are structured in a certain way and contain certain types of information because of the way they developed historically, as do journal indexes, primary source databases, and the omnipotent Google. Students have a hard time grasping this, I think, because there is a broader tendency within American culture to reify/dehistoricize technology. What this means is that they think everything can be found on Google and JSTOR (which do work fairly well for some types of secondary sources, so they tend to be fine with finding these). These products do not include everything (lots of content is proprietary), are terrible at primary sources that aren’t journal articles (JSTOR) or anything dated between about 1924 and 1995 (Google), and can be, depending on what you are looking, very difficult to search. This is the second question I am thinking of taking on in my project, although it might be enough to just take on the first question.