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Author: Iris

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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Reimagining Primary Source Searching to Help Dismantle Institutional Racism

Primary source searching is hard. It has always been hard. First there was the problem of extremely limited access (unless you had travel funding and archives access). Then, after the digitization boom, there’s the new problem of helping students understand that they can’t search for topics or ideas; they have to search for concrete things from the source description or from the text already in the source. “Postcard” will likely be in the metadata about a postcard, but “depicting domesticity in the 18th century” is just not part of the metadata as a general rule. I tell students that they have to search for people, places, or things, not topics. And even then it won’t be comprehensive. And there’s literally no way to search for “paintings by women” or “novels by Black people.” That’s just not how the systems are set up, I say, over and over and over. You have to literally type in the letters-in-a-row that the original authors typed, or you have to know the name of the creator, I explain, over and over and over. If you want to find out how x group is referenced in newspapers, you have to OR together all the names and words that might have been associated with that group, I instruct, over and over and over.

And therein lies the rub. I am no longer willing to inflict on my students the trauma – the violence – of ORing together all the epithets that have been used in newspapers and legislation and editorial cartoons and broadsides to refer to minority groups. It’s one thing to be presented with these terms once you’ve gained access to a historical document. It’s quite another to have to use your imagination, creativity, and research skills to come up with these terms. And then after all that you have to actively recreate these epithets by typing these terms into a search box?? All neatly strung together with your fancy boolean operators?? No. Doing that myself is painful. Requiring students to do that in order to gain access to the historical record is horrible.

Going through and improving the metadata in our digital collections is going to be hard, expensive, and time consuming. The historic record is quite large, after all. But we and our vendors must do this work. It’s our ethical, moral, and social responsibility, and the technology exists to make it possible. We’ve been applying subject metadata to secondary and tertiary sources for years — for decades. And especially now that curricula have shifted toward teaching from primary sources more and more, we can’t hide behind the convenient excuse that “this is just the price you pay for studying history.” No. This is not a price we should have to pay. This is certainly not the price that my Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, Latinx, and other historically marginalized students should have to pay in order to study history and culture.

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Black Lives Matter

In moments when I’m capable of joking these days, I joke that 2020 should fire its writers because this script has too many unbelievable plot lines. It jumped the shark on about the 47th of March, but it just keeps finding new sharks. The pandemic was “unprecedented” enough! But then there’s an economic crisis like none we’ve ever seen? And murder hornets? And now there’s also another black man murdered by the police and what feels like about 3 concurrent revolutions all vying for different goals?

People I know and love are living in veritable war zones. Places I care about are destroyed. My sense of who to trust with my personal safety and with the good of my community has crumbled. And all of this, I know, brings me only one step closer to understanding the world in which my black and brown neighbors have lived for generations.

What makes me reel is the sheer overwhelming scale of the problem. Because no, the current upheaval is not just about the cop who murdered George Floyd last week, or the three cops who stood by and watched it happen. It is certainly not about a “bad apple” cop. After all, this “bad apple” was recruited, nurtured, and protected by a system much larger than he is. It is not even solely about George Floyd, horrific as his murder was. Sadly, we have ample proof that this kind of killing can happen without much more than a ripple across society.

No, the heartbreak and the rage and the fear are because these kinds of killings can happen, and have so often happened, without much more than a ripple across society. And it has got to stop. Black lives matter. And once black lives finally matter — to all of us and to our social systems — then, finally, all lives will matter. And having lives matter is really the bare minimum, don’t you think?

We have to do better.

I have to do better.

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Staying Centered at Home

I’m very very lucky in a lot of ways. Just a few of those ways include having a job that I can do from home, not having child care as part of my work-from-home life, having pets that make life companionable and amusing, having a home that I enjoy being in and a work-from-home area of that home that looks out on a massive bank of lilac bushes that will bloom any time…. and so much more.

Some days are tougher, of course. Anxiety will hit, or my computer will stop allowing me to use one of the two virtual conferencing tools that I rely on, or stuff will feel overwhelming. But for the most part the rhythm of my days are keeping me going, and are well sprinkled with things that bring me joy.

Weekday rhythms

Early morning: Sip tea, watch last night’s Daily Show and Colbert Show, watch yesterday’s video from my pastor, make a couple masks.

cat sleeps

Morning: Get a heating pad (for my feet) and a blanket (for my lap), gather a pot of tea and some fruit or nuts, and settle in for work in my “office.” Typically my cat joins me to sleep in the bed I’ve put on a chair next to me.

Lunch: Take a walk while chatting with my sister-in-law on the phone. Eat lunch. Make another pot of tea for the afternoon.

hand pushing cat away from desk keyboard

Afternoon: Settle in with my heating pad, blanket, and napping cat for the afternoon. Sometime around 3:30 or 4 the cat will come fully awake and want to be a part of everything, especially everything involving a keyboard that he can sit on. Or a webcam. Webcams are cat magnets.

Evening: Every evening I read one more chapter of a book to the kids from a few families I know (including my nephews). It’s been very amusing to watch a bunch of young kids learn the ins and outs of video conferencing. At this point they mostly handle muting and un-muting themselves quite well, and they do a lot of reacting to the chapter in the chat, which they found themselves. Amazing!

Dinner: Connect with my parents through video chat and have dinner “together” while watching a streaming show of some kind.

Pre-bed: I might go to bed at this point, or I might stay up for a while to make some more masks. It all depends on how tired I am.

I’m a person who lives by rhythm and ritual, and I’ve also always loved the sense of wrapping my house around me like a cozy blanket in the winter. So I’m probably ideally situated for these work-from-home times. But my mind also kind of slips off any attempt to plan how things will go a month from now, or two months, or during Fall term… or next year. I know a lot’s uncertain so living in the moment is probably a pretty good strategy, but sometimes I also wonder if I should work a little harder at making even preliminary plans for farther ahead. Maybe I’ll let too much sneak up on me and have to scramble too hard once that hazy future becomes very real deadlines and calendar invites…. Or maybe it’s ok that I lull myself with the ebb and flow of each day.

Time will tell.

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