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.  

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