Primary Source Workshop

This lesson was originally developed for teaching Parsons School of Design first-year students about primary sources as part of a required art and design Integrated Seminar and Studio. Instructors for upper-level undergraduate and graduate courses in various academic disciplines have since used the hand-out in a modified format or unchanged from its original format.

Aim: To introduce undergraduates to the concepts of “archives” and “primary source research.”

Objectives: Students will:

  • define “archives” and “primary sources,” and demonstrate an understanding that primary sources are objects, or groupings of objects, that include a variety of formats, requiring the student’s interpretation
  • demonstrate ability to evaluate and interrogate primary sources, as well their own assumptions about historical interpretation, in a structured way
  • understand the scholarly importance of citations in original research
  • recognize how archives can be a valuable resource for certain types of projects, and how archivists can be helpful research partners
  • discern the relationship between primary and secondary sources

Student profile: While undergraduate students may be familiar with the words, “archives” and “primary sources,” many may not realize that they have already had experience using them. Few will have formally conducted research in an archival repository, but they likely have interacted in some way with primary sources.

Scope and content: This lesson is an introductory level exploration of primary sources and the role of archives in providing access to primary sources. Concepts introduced and explored during the lesson include content, context, and significance as they relate to interpreting primary sources. The class will also consider the importance of citations in secondary sources, specifically citations that lead researchers back to primary sources. Students are exposed to traditional academic research conventions, such as the use of citations in scholarly texts.

Pedagogic methods: The lesson is divided into five activities, each of which builds upon the previous activity. A sixth activity is suggested. Active learning rather than direct instruction is used as much as possible. Students are encouraged to share their experiences and observations throughout.

1. Students are asked to develop a definition of “archives.” This can be a formal definition, examples of different kinds of archives (university, government, museum, community-based, etc.) or specific examples from students’ prior experiences. The class collectively creates a definition through instructor-led discussion. The Society of American Archivists provides a technical definition here. A more basic definition can be found in the Online Dictionary of Library and Information Science:

An organized collection of the noncurrent records of the activities of a business, government, organization, institution, or other corporate body, or the personal papers of one or more individuals, families, or groups, retained permanently (or for a designated or indeterminate period of time) by their originator or a successor for their permanent historical, informational, evidential, legal, administrative, or monetary value, usually in a repository managed and maintained by a trained archivist (see this example). Also refers to the office or organization responsible for appraising, selecting, preserving, and providing access to archival materials.

2. Students are asked to develop a definition of “primary sources” through collaborative creation of a list of different primary sources. The instructor emphasizes the variety of forms primary sources can take (textual, visual, static/time-based, analog/digital), and that, depending on the research context, an object can be a primary or a secondary source. For example, a website can be a secondary source if one is looking for facts, but it can be a primary source if one is researching how facts are presented. Wikipedia can be used to illustrate this concept. Students are often able to produce dictionary definitions of “primary sources” but then encounter difficulty citing examples. It is important to move beyond definitions to concrete examples.

3. Students are asked to consider how one finds primary sources. This prompt is often the most challenging, and the instructor emphasizes that the issue of finding primary sources is difficult for everyone, not just undergraduates. Catalogs (Bobcat, Worldcat, Archivegrid) are mentioned very briefly. The primary information to be imparted at this stage is that students should seek assistance from professors, archivists and librarians. Checking citations in secondary sources is the final method of finding primary sources reviewed. It is assumed that students will not have had prior experience examining citations for this purpose, so this method introduces a new concept.

4. Instructor tells story about conducting research, and finding information in secondary sources that inform primary source research. Story conveys how even seasoned academics and scholars do not have all the answers, and sometimes are mistaken. Students are shown an example of a secondary source with endnotes demonstrating which archives and primary sources the author used to construct her unique argument. Students are informed that they may replicate this process in their own work. Examples will be provided, but instructors are encouraged to select favorites or use class readings as long as the citations are well-formed.

5. Students form small groups (4 maximum) and evaluate sets of primary sources related to Earth Day at Parsons in 1970 from the Joseph Marcella Student Work Collection for their content, context, and significance. Alternatively, the entire class can do the exercise together. This activity is guided by the instructor, who clarifies the meaning of each of the three terms. Students use a hand-out provided by the instructor, but are encouraged to follow trajectories that emerge during group discussion. If group work is selected, students should take turns acting as note-takers for the group (one note-taker per page of hand-out, for example). Students then reconvene and orally share their observations as a class. Instructor asks questions of the groups regarding their findings, particularly regarding how the students might incorporate the primary sources into a larger argument, or what their strategy might be to devise and answer research questions. How can they use what they already know to interrogate the primary sources more fully?
Instructors can model behaviors such as asking questions about terminology they do not understand, or sharing experiences (positive or negative) they have had using archives and primary sources in their own work. Particularly appreciated are contributions that will help communicate that all researchers, even academics and professional artists and designers, struggle to interpret primary sources and face research challenges.

6. OPTIONAL. Students can select one of the research questions from the hand-out and identify a secondary source that may answer the question, or provide additional context. Instructors may require students to use the library for this purpose, or have the class conduct an experiment by asking some students to use “authoritative” sources while others use “unauthoritative” sources, and then compare and reflect upon the results.
Instructor’s expectations: It often takes time for students to begin feeling comfortable openly sharing and brainstorming ideas generated by viewing primary sources. Additionally, students are sometimes intimidated sharing observations about their interpretations. The structured hand-out, and repeated re-enforcement throughout the lesson that it is acceptable to not know the answer to a research question gradually facilitates student engagement with the instructor and with each other. During past uses of this lesson, the New School Archives and Special Collections staff has observed students making sophisticated and original contributions to group discussion, despite student hesitation about interpretive abilities.

Learning activities: This lesson was designed to diverge as much as possible from traditional library instruction, which often relies heavily on direct instruction. Collaborative learning occupies a core component of the lesson.
Students are expected to contribute to instructor-led class discussion and participate in small group work, discussing primary sources with fellow group members. Recording other group members’ observations is also required, adding a writing component as well.

Differentiation of learning: The lesson was developed with the awareness that many Parsons students are non-native English speakers. Therefore, reading and writing are not prioritized over other forms of perception, such as visual literacy. A small amount of writing is required, involving taking turns listening to small group member observations and distilling them into notes that will be orally shared with the class. During the groups’ presentations, each student is encouraged to orally share an observation. This can be challenging for students who are uncomfortable being asked to share their opinions in a classroom setting. Efforts are made to maintain an environment in which all are encouraged to speak and to listen. Students are informed that each individual’s past experiences inform his/her perceptions, so all perceptions are unique to each individual, and potentially valuable in the formulation of research questions.

Progression:  The lesson is structured and guided by the instructor, with each activity building upon information and ideas established in the previous activity. Instructor periodically checks for understanding, and refers back to concepts or questions discussed throughout the lesson.

Time: A minimum of one hour is required for the workshop, although 1.5 hours is strongly recommended. Students require a minimum of three (3) five-ten minute small-group activities (five to ten minutes per page of hand-out) and a collective minimum of twenty minutes (for four groups) to share their findings and discuss implications. Additionally, time is required to introduce concepts at the beginning of the lesson and answer questions at the end of the lesson.

Space: If conducted in a classroom, the room should either have a screen or students may be asked to use their own electronic devices to access the Digital Collections site. The New School Archives’ instructional space in 66 Fifth Avenue is not large enough to accommodate an entire class section.

Resources: Free, online SAA publication (also available in downloadable PDF format), Using Archives (as recommended reading, can be read in whole or in part prior to class), and digitized collection of archival materials provided by New School Archives and Special Collections.

Language: Research-oriented terminology will be introduced. Students may have been previously exposed to the vocabulary below, but it may remain abstract to them. Newly introduced vocabulary will include:
•       Archives
•       Archivist
•       Primary Sources
•       Content
•       Context
•       Significance

Ancillary staff: If instructors have questions after attending the IS2 workshop, New School Archives and Special Collections’ staff is available for additional consultation. Instructors are welcome to contact the Archives about planning more in-depth research assignments.

Assessment: Presently, informal, in-class oral presentations by students are the only form of assessment. Instructors may individually develop their own methods for assessment, such as requiring a reflective response paper, or requiring the use of primary sources (analog or digital) in an assignment. Past experience with written assessment in the form of student papers indicates that the act of writing a paper with/about primary sources often dulls the originality and enthusiasm students demonstrate interpreting primary sources in hands-on activities. Consequently, students may comprehend the lesson, but the form of assessment may not accurately measure comprehension. Assessment that takes into consideration different outputs, such as written reports, oral presentations, visual representations (graphic informational display, video, etc.), or a combination of these may allow for a more accurate measurement of student comprehension.

Review Procedures: The New School Archives’ staff encourages instructors to provide questions, feedback and suggestions, either immediately following the session, or at the end of the semester, or both, in order to improve instruction.

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SUBMITTED BY: Jenny Swadosh, The New School