Information Literacy Roundtable 2019: Primary Sources in the Classroom

By Susan Falciani Maldonado, Special Collections and Archives Librarian

On August 19th, Trexler Library’s teaching librarians hosted the annual Information Literacy Roundtable. This year, eight faculty members joined librarians over brunch for a lively discussion around the nature and use of primary sources across disciplines. To begin, we shared the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. This document was drafted by a joint task force comprising members of the Society of American Archivists and of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Section of the Association of College and Research Libraries and approved in 2018. While on the surface these Guidelines appear to be aimed at the use of “traditional” (maps, manuscripts, books) primary sources more familiar to students of the humanities, we discussed that all of the Core Concepts and Learning Objectives included in the document apply across disciplines. Faculty members were asked to remind the group what information is considered “primary” in their fields: biology, business, public health, media and communication, and history. This interdisciplinary conversation seemed to shine light on the confusion experienced by students who are taking a variety of classes across fields, as well as that felt by faculty when students have such a challenge grasping the concept of “primary,” not to mention difficulty citing them!

We discussed how the same source can be considered both primary and secondary, and determined that the distinction is created by the nature of the research question, rather than by the source itself. Tineke D’Haeseleer (History) pointed out that works long considered primary in Chinese Studies, hundreds or thousands of years old, and republished through countless editions as canonical, continue to be challenged as new archeological developments show different content than the works once considered “original.”

The second half of our Roundtable consisted of activities that could be modeled in the classroom to create opportunities for students to analyze primary sources in less traditional ways. Kelly Cannon led the group in an activity that showcased that a reference work could be examined as a primary source. Working in pairs, participants examined the Library of Congress Subject Headings looking for omissions and anachronisms that reveal the hegemonic nature of this foundational tool of cataloging and information organization.

Participants then selected rare books from across disciplines, from The Physiology of Digestion (1836) to the Allentown City Directory (1885), brought by Susan Falciani Maldonado. They examined the works not just for the interesting (and outdated) content, but for gaps in the record (what is lost when each household address in Allentown was designated by the male family member’s name and occupation) and for audience (at whom were recommendations for a “good” diet aimed? Lay people? Physicians?).

We hope that a broad understanding of disciplinary primary sources, along with engaging ways to have students analyze these materials, will continue to be considered over this academic year, and we look forward to hearing people’s reflections at our spring event!

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