This guest post on ProfHacker by Yale archivist Caro Pinto has some really nice suggestions about ways to introduce both primary sources and research databases and the relationship between the two.
Decontextualizing the sources (which, as illustrated in the example) I think works better, or is at least more immediate, with visual documents creates more intrigue about them and forces the students to consider what outside material (secondary sources from a research database) they’d need to adequately understand and build a research paper around that document.
This approach will also, I think, naturally lead students to consider the outside elements of a document and get them to concentrate on the audience, historical context, authorship, perspective, tone, and the like. Ideally the mystery created by the decontextualization will foster a more organic discussion of these elements, and, as Pinto notes, make them realize the necessity of secondary sources and the potential relationship between the two.
Teaching students about primary sources is a hallmark of history instruction. In my case, when teaching history students about how to locate primary resources at Yale, my go-to database is our Yale Finding Aid Database. The first time I demonstrate the database, students are sometimes uninterested because they are not always familiar with finding aids or primary source research. It’s often too easy to just explain what a finding aid is and talk about how researchers use them, and then demonstrate to students how to input search terms to find one. In recounting this process to you here I am already bored, so I can only imagine how students feel!
To combat the drudgery of this “telling,” I tend to provide an overview of the database once and then conduct an exercise where students have to use primary sources without any context of what they are, when they are from, or on what subject they might be most useful.. I ask them to come up with a paper topic based on primary sources I have handed out to them in folders, and then to reflect on something that was rewarding about working with primary sources and something that was challenging or frustrating. Students encounter several road blocks during this exercise: reading actual handwriting, encountering names of people they are unfamiliar with, and not knowing the context of events depicted in certain materials. When we reconvene, the students vent their frustrations to me about how they did not know anything about the people or events described in the material.
In spite of these hurdles, students enjoy working with the material and wax enthusiastic about how much fun it is to see first hand accounts of the civil rights movement or photographs from the 1901 World’s Fair. Holding onto their attention, I use their frustrations to frame the database search process once more, and students enjoy a “click” moment in which they can connect primary source materials with other secondary sources: as one student said in a recent research education session, “aha! This finding aid will tell me more about this guy receiving letters from racists!” In the end, students experience firsthand the interconnectedness of primary and secondary sources, that one type of source cannot exist without the other and that being able to discover and use both effectively are key skills. Or, as one of my students noted, “it’s totally awesome how this book about the civil rights helps me make better sense of this letter protesting separate but equal!”