By Courtney Suciu
Just a few decades ago, primary source materials were usually reserved for the most serious, advanced scholars. Items like fragile historical documents, photographs, testimonials, diaries and ephemera were only accessible by traveling to the museums and libraries that held them. This put uniquely insightful content well out of the grasp of younger students as well as researchers who couldn’t afford the cost of travel to various archives.
But the advances of the information age have facilitated changing attitudes in education and the culture heritage sector, inspiring more emphasis on the role of primary sources in fostering advanced literary skills among all students and researchers, including K-12 and lower-level undergraduates.
So, what kinds of research and learning outcomes do primary source literacy promote?
To find out, we spoke with Robin M. Katz, the Primary Source Literacy Teaching Librarian at the University of California, Riverside, a position she created after serving on the joint task force that authored the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.
Katz, who also teaches a course on Primary Source Pedagogy for Library Juice Academy, explained the movement in education to encourage younger students to think about and “experience history the way that historians do.”
Providing access to primary sources “encourages students to examine evidence and draw their own conclusions,” Katz explained. Such an approach inspires curiosity and provokes more engaged learning, as students can actively participate in research rather than passively memorize names and dates, the way history has often been taught in the past.
By teaching students how to think like historians, they learn how to think critically about secondary sources. “Historians weave stories and debate interpretations of fact” and that’s a valuable part of scholarship, Katz said. But being able to analyze historical events directly rather than through the filter of a secondary source empowers students to ask questions and learn how to answer questions for themselves.
She pointed out how this “levels the playing field” among students. Beginning researchers who, for various reasons, are more advanced in skills like reading and writing do not have an advantage over other students when primary sources are introduced, she said.
Rather, when engaging with primary sources “all students become new students, learning a new skill outside of their comfort zones,” Katz noted. This means that the observations of all beginning researchers have equal merit and value, which also encourages the exchange of – and exposure to – diverse perspectives.
In addition to the kinds of research insights and analysis that are prompted by interrogating primary source material, Katz explained how the collections themselves are also a source of data that encourage critical thinking.
Most of the students she’s worked with are eager to talk about how primary source collections are curated. Questions arise, she said, such as: “How do power dynamics shape what we archive?” and “How do primary source collections mirror the structure of colonialism/expansionism?”
“Today’s students are savvy and eager to unpack implications about diversity and respect for all cultures,” she said.
Katz described challenges implicit in archiving primary sources and how the structure and content of collections might reproduce and reinforce dominant, colonialist perspectives. For example, she explained, “in the WPA [Works Progress Administration] Slave Narratives project of the 1930s, white interviewers often had good intentions but their attempts to transcribe the ‘dialect’ speaking patterns of elderly survivors of slavery are now viewed much more critically.”
Such observations, she said, can encourage critical thinking about the voices that have shaped our understanding of the past.
Katz also discussed how the belief that all government information should be accessible to all citizens was borne out of the democratic ideals of the French Revolution. While this notion has been widely embraced by Western cultures, it strikes many critics as an act of neocolonialism when applied to indigenous cultures and artifacts removed from sacred lands – especially sacred objects and knowledge which are not meant to be accessed by all people.
For these reasons, Katz said is important for researchers to ask, “Who controls information?” This is a critical aspect of developing primary source literacy, which she pointed out doesn’t exist in isolation. The kinds of skills honed with primary source literacy overlap with other forms of literacy, such as information literacy and digital literacy, as well as building awareness of often contradictory points of view.
All skills which are necessary for the foundation of academic success, and to sustain an informed citizenry.
About Robin M. Katz
Robin M. Katz is a librarian, archivist and educator who works to connect people to primary sources in meaningful and innovative ways. She is currently the Primary Source Literacy Librarian at the University of California, Riverside, a position she crafted after serving on the joint task force that authored the new Primary Source Literacy Guidelines. She co-created TeachArchives.org based on a groundbreaking US Department of Education grant she led at Brooklyn Historical Society. She has spent over a decade in special collections public services after receiving her MLIS from Kent State University and her BA from Brandeis University.
Courtney Suciu is ProQuest’s lead blog writer. Her loves include libraries, literacy and researching extraordinary stories related to the arts and humanities. She has a Master’s Degree in English literature and a background in teaching, journalism and marketing. Follow her @QuirkySuciu