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A biannual publication offering insights into the use of digital historical collections

"Find Ten Primary Sources by Tuesday": Tips for Teaching Students to Use Digital Archives

Molly Strothmann

Social and Behavioral Sciences Reference Librarian, University of Oklahoma Libraries

Many of the topics librarians address in teaching digital archives of historical documents are common to bibliographic instruction of all electronic resources: explain the content and scope, demonstrate searching and show how to print and save searches. Digital archives, however, are sufficiently different from other search tools because their instruction requires a more specialized approach. Several suggestions for effectively teaching such primary source archives follow.

First, explain to your users how using a digital archive will benefit them. While it's easy to spend the limited bibliographic instruction time available on the what and how of the resource—content and searching techniques—it's essential to not neglect the all-important why.

What benefit does a primary source archive offer that a database of journal articles does not? This is a vital information literacy question, and your answer will depend, of course, on the expertise of the users you are teaching. Although historians with extensive experience using primary texts will find the value obvious, it's unlikely that all beginning undergraduates will share that understanding.

Why should students burden themselves with original historical documents—arcane and abstruse as they often are—when they have textbooks available to summarize and interpret the same information? Why would any professor demand such a thing? Teaching digital archives affords you an important opportunity to explore these questions with students. By encouraging an understanding of the value of primary sources—including the potential for original discoveries in unabridged historical documents—users often explore digital archives with a new pleasure in making the required deductions and inferences on their own.

Next, explain the content of the archive—its scope, dates of coverage, document types, etc.—as well as its limitations. If an archive's content, for instance, is focused primarily on a particular geographic region, make that clear to your users. Depending on your students' information literacy, it may be helpful to outline the differences between a historical archive and other electronic databases. The reasons for this are twofold: first, it reinforces the distinctions between available resources (primary versus secondary, journal articles versus numerous document types), and, second, it allows you to explain how the content will influence searching strategies.

Demonstrating a variety of searches will generally be the core component of your instruction, during which you can further clarify how searching digital archives differs from searching other resources users already know. In addition to the ubiquitous keyword searching, digital archives usually allow a number of other searching and browsing techniques. Explain why those other options are helpful; unlike keyword searching, the benefits of the more sophisticated options are generally not obvious to students.

For example, if the archive allows one to browse by genre, explain not only what the available document types actually mean, but also why your students might want them. Beginning students might know they're interested in religious documents, but do they know the difference between Psalters and catechisms, or why they would want to view either? They might understand the use of newspaper articles in research but still need guidance on what they might learn from a classified ad or a menu. Likewise, why would they want to differentiate among sources according to any of the other characteristics provided? As you demonstrate how to browse by date or place of publication, your students might need you to elucidate what they can learn by limiting their searches to a specific time or location.

Try to tailor the level of detail to the needs of the audience. One always hesitates to inundate users with too many technicalities, and the teaching of digital archives should be no exception. Your users probably won't be terribly interested in details of the digitization process or the OCR quality—except, of course, as it affects their ability to search. They do need to know if they are likely to encounter any discrepancies: will a keyword, full-text search for "Massachusetts" produce documents from the Commonwealth of "Mafsachustts"? If not, how should they search instead to be certain they are not excluding relevant items?

Your answer will vary depending on the audience. Sometimes demonstrating advanced search techniques like wildcards will be well received. For novice searchers, showing browse techniques or explaining citation text searching might be enough. For all users, though, do take the time to explain procedural details—nearly everyone will want to know how to print, zoom, save searches and email persistent links.

Finally, encourage your students to explore and experiment. Digital archives are marvelous tools for creative discovery and engagement with historical texts. By teaching your students to use them and urging them to make some discoveries of their own, you give them a means to enrich their understanding of history. Their insights may amaze them.

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