Thoughts on Instruction: Teaching Primary Sources

Thoughts on Instruction: Teaching Primary Sources

By Marc Brodsky

This article appeared in the Volume 1, Issue 1 Spring/Summer 2019 issue of the Appalachian Curator. Click here to view a PDF of the full issue.

What is the nature of Special Collections instruction for an archivist working at an institution in the Appalachian region? Certainly, it is not any single thing. There are a wide variety of responses based on the differences found at a range of institutions. Collections differ—materials on hand—as do the purposes or objectives of any given class we may be called on to teach. Most of us that offer this kind of instruction—I presume—provide one-shot sessions (occasionally, two; rarely, three) to courses that represent different subject areas, time periods, modes of inquiry; as do I. The opportunity to work with an Appalachian studies class occurs on occasion, but this is the exception rather than the rule. I work at Virginia Tech, a land-grant university in southwest Virginia, located approximately 25 miles from the West Virginia border. In what ways does the instruction that my colleagues and I offer differ substantially from that offered by archivists outside of the region?

Preparing to teach with primary sources
Preparing to teach with primary sources

An initial answer might be, “It doesn’t have to.” In many ways, the manner in which I teach primary source literacy and the “mysteries and intrigues” of Special Collections is probably not that different from how archivists teach in other settings. I usually teach undergraduates, though sometimes I see graduate classes and also do some K-12 work. Most of the students I see have never been to an archival repository and have limited experience with primary sources. Personally, my most immediate goals, regardless of the topical material of the class, are to discuss and offer instruction on the tools, skills, and methods required to identify and use our materials effectively and to introduce and emphasize the value of primary sources for research. By putting primary sources into the hands of each student whenever possible, each class also offers an opportunity to create enthusiasm for working with these kinds of materials, while opening a window on the range of materials available.

Does the choice of materials presented to demonstrate the use of finding aids or the challenges of reading handwriting, for example, become an element of the class session itself? Of course it does. At some level, these choices communicate to students something by their very selection: an appropriateness for the class, a desire on the part of the instructor to work with specific items, or, again, simply to demonstrate to students who are unfamiliar with Special Collections a range of materials that are available. Some collections in the region focus primarily, if not exclusively, on Appalachian materials, while others do not. Even though all of us who do this kind of work are “limited” by the materials we have, this “limitation” has—in my experience—more to do with requests for materials on specific topics than it does with the use of representative materials that serve in an instructional setting. As we know, repositories defined by a geographical collecting area are not necessarily limited in their ability to choose materials that represent a range of human inquiry and endeavor that are, therefore, appropriate to a wide range of classroom situations.

At Virginia Tech, one of our collecting areas is Local/Regional/Appalachian materials, but it is only one of several areas in which we collect, and it is neither our strongest nor largest area of concentration. Yet, our LibGuide for the university’s basic Appalachian studies class (produced by my colleague, Kira Dietz) lists materials under a wide range of topics that begin with Literature and Art and move through Crafts, Fiber Arts, Economics, Housing, Transportation, Food and Foodways, History and Culture—to name a few—before ending up with People, Social Life, Customs, and Community. We may not be able to delve as deeply into any given Appalachian topic as an institution whose collecting focus is this region, but for those who do collect primarily in this area, demonstrating their depth of material to students in an instructional setting is an important part of communicating the identity of their repository to folks who are new to them.

For the rest of us, there are a few things we can do. We certainly have the opportunity to instruct people on another aspect of Special Collections; that we do not have materials on all subjects, and that part of our task as archivists may be to point people to repositories that are more appropriate for a given research inquiry or interest. If someone comes to Gene Hyde at UNC-Asheville after a class and asks about Apollo 11, he might be wise to send that person to Virginia Tech. If I’m asked about what was being played at Galax in 1986, I’d have to recall whether I should send them to either Berea or the Blue Ridge Institute at Ferrum. Or, I might tell them to contact both.

For a more creative response, I like to include Appalachian materials in classroom presentations where they might not normally be expected. Perhaps most primary sources, when put into the hands of inexperienced students, already contain some element of the unexpected, and to add to that sense multiplies the possibility that those items will be more powerfully noticed by those students. It seems to me that whatever we can do to increase the chances that an item, a document, some part of a collection arouses interest and enthusiasm, then we’ve taken a big step towards one of the large goals that I mentioned earlier.

Recently, I had a graphic design class come to Special Collections that had never visited before. The course instructor wondered if Special Collections could show her students examples of visual or graphical displays of information and gave maps and diagrams as examples. Among the mix of material I planned for them, it was easy to include soil maps or railroad maps of the area. But in the end, I was able to begin the class with a display and discussion of Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s Ichnographia from the 1762 Campus Martius (a large engraved plate that presents a plan/map of Rome that is part fact, part fantasy) and conclude with several hand drawn weaving patterns from southwest Virginia that date from the 1830s and ’40s. In both cases, we were able to discuss the context of these documents, as well as the details on the pages. (I did have to enlist the assistance of a friend of mine who is a weaver to help decipher the lines, numbers and other marks on the patterns, but that was part of what I enjoyed.) This was not a typical class for me, and I went into it not knowing what to expect. Students left wide-eyed about what they’d seen, with some interesting examples to consider for their classwork, and wanting to know more about what they might find in Special Collections on a subsequent visit. That’s a successful class, as far as I’m concerned.

Why make a point of including materials that are specifically of this region in classes where they are appropriate, even if unexpected? In part, it’s because doing so serves the purpose of the class, and because we can. Just as importantly, it shows that we are interested in serving the well-developed, recognized, earned, and established sense of place this region enjoys. And, it’s where we live.

Marc Brodsky is Public Services and Reference Archivist in Special Collections at Virginia Tech

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