Creating meaningful learning encounters with primary sources involves dynamic collaboration between instructors and those who work with cultural heritage collections, including librarians, archivists, and museum professionals. Here at Ithaka S+R we have been engaging in a series of studies in collaboration with academic libraries, archives, and museums to understand instructors’ support needs in this area, including how to support their teaching with digital cultural heritage materials as classes went remote during the pandemic.

In addition to understanding instructors’ experiences and challenges, it is also important to collect concrete examples of pedagogical engagements with primary sources that have worked for practitioners on-the-ground. Two researchers we collaborated with on the Teaching with Primary Sources project, Julie Porterfield and Lijuan Xu, recently published books that explore pedagogical best practices. Here we explore what motivated them to write their books, how their experiences in the project informed their books’ development, and what issues relating to teaching with primary sources are currently top of mind.

The Teaching with Primary Sources Cookbook

The Teaching with Primary Sources Cookbook is a new book highlighting compelling teaching use cases written by Julie M Porterfield, who is an instruction and outreach archivist at Pennsylvania State University Libraries.

What motivated you to develop this new book?

One of the things that I am most passionate about is that I truly believe that primary sources lend themselves to critical thinking, transformative learning, and liberatory pedagogies. The tradition of classroom consciousness-raising, or the sharing of personal experiences, has been the keystone of critical pedagogy, since Paulo Freire called it by its Portuguese name, conscientização, in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed in 1968. Around the same time, Kathie Sarachild and the New York Radical Women began using consciousness-raising as a tool in the women’s liberation movement, and it eventually made its way to feminist classrooms in newly created women’s studies departments (see Carol Hanisch’s “The Personal Is Political” in Notes From the Second Year: Women’s Liberation). By definition, primary sources are first-hand accounts of a particular experience. As a result, they are uniquely situated to serve as the personal experience testimony for consciousness-raising and facilitate critical approaches to teaching and learning.

Unfortunately, teaching primary sources can also be cumbersome and overwhelming, especially for individuals who are less experienced with using them. Barriers from unique search and discovery tools, like finding aids, to additional preparation time are deterrents. So, my intention was to put together a resource that would serve as a very practical entry point for those who are new to teaching primary sources, as well as an opportunity for experienced practitioners to refresh their lesson plans and get new ideas. A great friend and colleague suggested the ACRL Cookbook format, and the rest is history!

You are engaged in scholarship related to teaching with primary sources in a variety of ways, such as through Ithaka S+R’s Teaching Support Services project on primary sources. How has your research with primary source instructors informed or complemented the goals of the book?

I was completing my work editing the book and serving as the primary investigator for Penn State’s local instance of Ithaka S+R’s Supporting Teaching with Primary Sources study simultaneously. As the editor of the Cookbook, I was engaging with over 32 information professionals who are doing the work of teaching with primary sources daily. As a researcher on the study, I was gathering feedback from teaching faculty about how information professionals can better support the use of primary sources in their classrooms. So, this was definitely a time of deep reflection for me regarding the ways that primary source teaching and learning programs are successfully and not-so-successfully supporting the integration of primary sources into course curricula.

One of the primary tensions that emerged in my team’s findings for the Supporting Teaching with Primary Sources study was the question of prioritizing generic archival literacy research skills or more situated primary source literacy analysis skills. As in many other information literacy teaching and learning contexts, we are so often given such a short amount of time with the students, sometimes only a 50-minute, one-shot session. The faculty interviewed for our local study indicated a preference for prioritizing hands-on experience analyzing primary source materials during class time, rather than outcomes that are focused on research skills, like search and discovery. This preference was mirrored in my editing process for the Cookbook in its third section, “Food Critics: Teaching Primary Source Literacy,” which focuses on lesson plans that engage students in analyzing primary source materials. It is the longest section of the book with ten lesson plans, and it is also the section for which I had the most submissions during the selection process. Taking these two pieces of feedback into consideration together really emphasized a need for pedagogical strategies that will maximize learners’ time with primary source materials. As a result, I’m working on putting together digital modules for generic archival literacy skills that learners can work on outside of class time. So, I would say that my participation in the Ithaka S+R study and my work on the Cookbook informed each other, but they’ve also both helped to shape my practice.

What issues with teaching with primary sources are especially top of mind for you these days? Do you have any new or upcoming projects in this area?

I think that the primary teaching and learning issue on most folks’ minds, be it teaching with primary sources or other types of instruction, is the challenge associated with remote and hybrid learning. In addition to the typical concerns of educators, those who teach with primary sources have the added hurdle of transitioning an instructional service for which one of the primary learning outcomes is often experiencing the physical and/or tangible properties of a primary source to the virtual environment. For me, this has been particularly challenging because we wrapped up the Supporting Teaching with Primary Sources study just before the switch to fully remote learning at my institution, and our results indicated that faculty have a strong preference for their students interacting with physical primary sources in person. Some even pointed to this as the major motivator for collaborating with the Special Collections Library. So, demonstrating the value in digital engagement with primary sources, as well as developing strategies for making remote experiences as similar to in-person encounters with primary sources as possible are top of mind for me.

As I’m working through this, I’ve turned to my colleagues, who authored lesson plans for the fifth section of the Cookbook, “Takeout: Teaching with Digital Collections,” for guidance and advice. Recently, I partnered with a few of them for an ACRL Webcast on “Teaching with Digital Primary Sources.” Through this work, I’ve come to realize that there are also opportunities related to this transition. Remote teaching with primary sources allows learners who may not be geographically positioned near collections materials to still engage with them. As someone who works for an institution that has 23 campuses, this has been a huge paradigm shift. If a class on the other side of the state needs to see an especially valuable piece that can’t travel, like a Shakespeare folio, I can just jump on Zoom with my document camera and share it with them. I also think it lowers the barriers for instructors to begin teaching with primary sources. By using a digital primary source, instructors eliminate a big chunk of preparation time hurdles. There’s no need to look something up in a finding aid, make an appointment, come in to see it, scan it, etc. Instead, they can just look up options topically on a database, choose a few favorites, and plan their lesson. I’m really hopeful that this will encourage more folks to integrate primary sources into their curricula!

Engaging Undergraduates in Primary Source Research

Engaging Undergraduates in Primary Source Research is a new book highlighting compelling case studies in primary source pedagogy, edited by Lijuan Xu, associate director of research and instructional services at Lafayette College Library.

What motivated you to develop this new book?

Over the years, my colleagues and I have become increasingly involved in primary source-related teaching efforts at Lafayette College, such as constructing settler colonialism from the indigenous perspectives, understanding human-nature dynamics through local landscapes, and exploring the legacy of the Black Arts Movement through music. I don’t think we’re unique in this regard. When we signed up for the Ithaka S+R’s Teaching Support Services project on primary sources, we were eager to explore what further roles we can play. Prompted by the study and by our teaching experiences, I decided to survey the literature for examples and ideas on how to effectively engage students with primary sources. Most of the literature I found describes efforts undertaken by special collection librarians and archivists and equates primary source research with the use of local archival materials. Very few publications take a non-library- or tool-centered approach or feature the collaboration between faculty and librarians. The book aims to bridge that gap.

You are engaged in scholarship related to teaching with primary sources in a variety of ways, such as through Ithaka S+R’s Teaching Support Services project on primary sources. How has your research with primary source instructors informed or complemented the goals of the book?

The project affected the book in many ways. First of all, Ithaka S+R’s effort to investigate how faculty teach with primary sources further convinced me of the timeliness of a publication such as this book. This project, along with my own teaching experience and the literature research I did, also helped me better formulate the goals of the book—to provide insights into methods of engaging undergraduates and to promote collaboration between faculty and librarians. What I learned from the fifteen faculty interviews we conducted at Lafayette College—why they teach with primary sources, how they engage students with primary sources, and what challenges they encounter—helped further shape the book. It guided the selection of the proposals as well as the editing of the chapters. Throughout the entire process, I found myself asking if and how the case studies, their stories and strategies, might be helpful to those we interviewed and beyond.

What issues with teaching with primary sources are especially top of mind for you these days? Do you have any new or upcoming projects in this area?

One thing that I’m concerned with at the moment is the contextualization and analysis of primary sources, particularly with regards to images. For example, this semester in a first-year seminar on coffee, the professor and I facilitated a class discussion about the visual representations of coffee. We asked students to consider a series of questions—such as, “what was going on during the time when the image was created? Whose perspective is and is not represented in the image?” “Why?” “How would the coffee growers tell their stories differently? Do such stories exist? In what format?”—to help them contextualize the images, identify the gaps in these materials, and understand the reasons for the silences.

My teaching approach is partly informed by the research I’ve been doing. Earlier this summer, I wrote a chapter about the missing and unheard voices of underprivileged groups in the context of power and information production. The various examples and exercises in this chapter are meant to help students discover the ways in which these communities remain invisible in the dominant discourse, unpack the reasons behind the absences and silences, and consider their role in elevating the absent or muted voices. For my current project, I’m looking at how library materials are categorized, described, and organized and how this process might skew our view of the experiences of marginalized groups. The system that libraries have relied on for this type of work was first created in the late 1890s. What views does it embody? Is it subject to biases? How do we make sure the stories and struggles of marginalized groups are not buried? These are the kinds of questions I’m looking into.