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Teaching Primary Source Discovery

I was recently asked if I could walk someone through how I typically approach teaching primary sources. I’m still thinking through how my approach will change this fall in light of my increasing sense that our primary source discovery options, at least in the world of digital primary sources, are part of the structural racism that permeates academia. But here are three of the main kinds of instruction I have done around primary source discovery up to now.

Non-Text-Based Source Discovery

  1. Start with an interesting primary source related to the assignment at hand.
    1. Working in small groups, discuss what kinds of things you can learn from this primary source. What themes would it help you explore. What do you notice that you’d want to investigate further… generally, do a bit of primary source analysis on the spot.
    2. Come together and collect these themes and “topics” and questions, and this source might be one of your sources for that paper — if you were doing a research paper this might be the topic of your paper or your research question.
  2. Now look at the record for that primary source (maybe in an archives catalog, or a digital collection, or whatever). 
    1. What are the words that are available to you in that record? If we use Control-F on the page, what could we find? 
    2. These are the words that we’ll probably have to use in a search box to find items like this one.
  3. I explain that a general strategy for finding primary sources is to find a “bucket of stuff” to comb through. You, the human, will be able to see what the primary sources are “about” but the computer only knows what the primary sources “are.” So the goal is to use words that are very concrete, like the ones we saw in that one record, to gather together a subset of the sources in a collection. And then we as humans look at what we’ve gathered and select 1 or 2 or whatever that we can see are “on our topics.”
  4. Students practice
    1. Sometimes I’ll have a worksheet where they can take notes about the search terms they come across as they open up item records so that later they can remember what search terms to experiment with.
    2. Keep track of what worked well and what was a challenge for group discussion
  5. The group discusses what they found, what was hard, etc.
  6. I impress upon them that this is not a task that can be rushed — it will take them a lot longer than they probably think it should. Plan accordingly!

Text-Based Primary Source Discovery

This is the one that will probably need the most change, but here’s what I’ve done so far.

  1. Sources are not categorized by what they’re “about.” That kind of meaning making is the work that you will do in your analysis. They’re also not categorized by the kind of person who created them. In most search systems, we can’t search for poems about colonial oppression or novels by Black women. (quick demo — zero results)
  2. Instead, you have three main strategies. In order:
    1. Use secondary/tertiary sources to identify primary sources. Find articles etc about your topic and see what they used for primary texts. Then find those texts or texts by the same authors.
    2. Use Instrumental Reading (more on this below) to find words and names that are associated by your topic and used by the people who are creating the kinds of sources you’re interested in. Then use those words/names in your searching. (Pro tip: this also works with scholarly source searching — not just primary source searching.)
    3. Use your own creativity and empathic powers to put yourselves in the shoes of the authors who might have created the works you’re interested in. What words would they have used?

Instrumental Reading

Instrumental Reading is a way to gain access to the language of the authors I care about for my topic, and then I can use that language to come up with fancy boolean searches.

  1. Hand out a page or two of a reading (include the bibliography if there is one in addition to the body pages). For best results, use a reading that they used in class already
    1. Explain that now we’re going to learn a different method of reading the text — not to understand its argument but to understand how to find other things like this thing or in conversation with this thing.
    2. This is all predicated on the idea that social groups develop shared language, and our job if we want to find what they’re saying is to know their language.
  2. Students work in groups of 2 or 3 to mark up the pages they’ve been given. Circle/note
    1. words associated with the various topics in the paper
    2. names of people/institutions
    3. disciplines mentioned (especially important in interdisciplinary classes)
    4. citations referenced or alluded to
  3. As a group, we develop a shared list of the words they’ve come up with, often on the blackboard or a shared doc or something.
  4. For the rest of class, I use words from this shared list for sample searches or to talk about why we might choose one database over another, or how to follow up on citations.

Here’s an example of a reading that I marked up for an intro course to Linguistics.

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