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Posted by on Jun 22, 2009

Tools for Teachers: Using Primary Sources as Instructional Tool

The Library of Congress is making good inroads into the realm of primary sources as instructional tools. This is a real opportunity area for institutions that have large collections of primary sources to illustrate their utility.

In this context, at least for the purposes of my limited discussion here, a primary source will refer to anything non-secondary source. Rather than describe something through negation, I will use a definition put forth by Baylor University:

“In scholarship, a document or record containing firsthand information or original data on a topic. Primary sources include original manuscripts, articles report original research or thought, diaries, memoirs, letters, journals, photographs, drawings, posters, film footage, sheet music, songs, interviews, government documents, public records, eyewitness accounts, newspaper clippings, etc.”

So, the keys here are “firsthand” and “original data.” I would also add to this mix materials that can be artifacts in and of themselves. Materials as both conveyors of information and historical objects. Think manuscripts for example.

My experience with Aluka afforded me the opportunity to view objects like this all day. You can find the metadata for this object here.

ScreenHunter_01 Jun. 22 08.34

The above is an example of an Islamic manuscript from the ancient city of Timbuktu digitized from a private library. In this case, the manuscript, undoubtedly a primary source document, can be viewed as conveyor of information (recording various fatwas, religious instruction and the like) and as an artifact (the paper, writing and language itself.)

This is all well and good, but how can a teacher harness this type of material for instruction?

The Library of Congress offers some options, including professional development workshops and showcases of best practices. They further include a page with teachers’ resources.

In my opinion, what is lacking with primary source instruction is not the idea generation phase, but rather technological limitations on how these materials can interact with one another. From the idea generation phase, we should be treading a direct path towards collaborative learning/presentation spaces. These collaborative spaces will allow this content to be portrayed in meaningful ways, in contextual ways.

At Aluka, we attempted to do this geographically. It is my belief, however non-nuanced, that many learners will respond to contextual presentations rooted in time and space. The where and the when of a discussion will naturally lead to the why (ideally.) By presenting context in terms of resource types (images, models, manuscripts, maps) and the location, discussions are bound to follow. Below is an example of a heritage site page for the ancient Ethiopian church complex at Lalibela. These structures are literally carved into the rock beneath.

ScreenHunter_02 Jun. 22 08.45

What is lacking here? There is a map with overlays, an introductory essay, resource type divisions, browsing by logical distinctions. What is lacking for the instructor/student is the space to put them all together.

I am starting to see more examples of collaborative learning spaces, spaces that would serve the dynamic content on Aluka well. Some decent examples include Vue from Tufts University and Commons 2.0.. These spaces would be the logical step from idea generation to contextual presentation to learning spaces (ingestion, analysis, synthesis, knowledge generation.)

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