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.

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