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

Play Matters: The Academic Librarian's Role in Fostering Historical Thinking

Lisa Norberg

Coordinator of Instructional Services, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

History is a field of study filled with bias, ambiguity and complexity. Analyzing historical documents and other artifacts is the historian's primary occupation. For students of history and related fields, working with primary materials is recognized as an important way to develop critical thinking skills, in general, and historical thinking skills, in particular. This is serious stuff. Or is it?

During a discussion on library instruction and outreach for digital primary collections at the Readex ETC Workshop and Symposium in April 2005, I asked my colleagues and fellow participants to ponder the following "what ifs":

  • What if we exposed students to primary resources without requiring them to navigate the library's Website or learn the intricacies of searching a highly structured database?
  • What if we provided easy access to the secondary literature associated with the primary source materials they're using?
  • What if we modeled how we found the sources through step-by-step Web guides for those curious to learn more?

I even suggested that we help faculty build digital sandboxes in the backyards of their course pages. These sandboxes would be filled with an array of engaging primary materials and tools that would enable students to explore, to discover, to play. My playful argument was based on a growing body of research that indicates that students need the opportunity to connect with primary sources on a cognitive and emotional level in order to assess their meaning and put them into historical context (Bass, 2003; Bass & Rosenzweig, 1999; Perkins, 2003; Tally, 2005; Wilson & Wineberg, 2001; Wineburg, 1991, 2000, 2001).

A year has passed since I attempted to make the case for digital sandboxes, and a couple of things have convinced me it deserves more serious consideration.

I was recently asked to serve on a university-wide strategic planning committee for IT in Education and Learning at my institution, UNC-Chapel Hill. The assignment gave me the rare opportunity to meet and talk to faculty about what they would really like to be doing in the classroom that they currently can't. A common thread heard throughout these discussions was the desire of faculty to make greater use of primary source materials in the classroom—text from a document, images, film clips and so on. They noted that, even for them, the process of locating and extracting these items is arduous and time-consuming. They also noted that they would like to see students incorporate such items into their own papers and research projects.

I've also noticed that more and more faculty and graduate instructors complain less about their students' ability to find information and more about their ability to sift through the information they find, assess its quality, recognize bias and make other critical judgments. While it's true that students' search skills may not be what we would like them to be, that is our obsession and it is time to let it go. If academic librarians, especially those of us involved in instruction, are truly committed to facilitating student learning, we need to go beyond access and facilitate the use of primary source materials. It begins by realizing that putting a link to a database on a library Website is not access.

Most students would never think to go to the library's Website to look for primary materials and frankly, the way most of our sites are designed, even if they did, chances are they would never find them. More importantly, students are not familiar with the contents of Early American Imprints, the U.S. Congressional Serial Set or American State Papers. Librarians are. We need to put these valuable primary resources where students can find them. Only then will they have the time they need to play, to think, to understand.

This idea has been echoed in the principles recently laid out by Ken Chad and Paul Miller (2005) when discussing Library 2.0, including the idea that:

The library is everywhere;
The library has no barriers;
The library invites participation;
The library uses flexible, best-of-breedsystems;
The library matters.

If the library is to matter, we must recognize and accept that play matters. By working with faculty to facilitate access to our rich collections of primary sources, academic librarians can play a critical role in fostering historical thinking.

Bass, R. "Engines of Inquiry: Teaching, Technology, and Learner-Centered Approaches to Culture and History." 2003. Georgetown University Website. March 8, 2006. 

Bass, R., & Rosenzweig, R. "Rewiring the History and Social Studies Classroom: Needs, Frameworks, Dangers, and Proposals." 1999. American Institutes for Research Website: White Papers on the Future of Technology in Education. March 8, 2006. 

Chad , K. & Miller, P. "Do Libraries Matter: The Rise of Library 2.0." 2005. Talis Website. March 14, 2006. 

Perkins, D. "Making Thinking Visible." 2003. New Horizons for Learning Website. 

Seixas, P. "Student Teachers Thinking Historically." Theory and Research in Social Education 26.3 (1998): 310-341

Tally, B. & Goldenberg, L.B. "Fostering historical thinking with digitized primary sources. Journal of Research on Technology in Education 38.1 (2005): 1-21

Wilson, S., & Wineburg, S. "Wrinkles in Time and Place: Using Performance Assessments to Understand the Knowledge of History Teachers." Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Ed. S. Wineburg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. pp. 173-214

Wineburg, S. "Historical Problem Solving: A Study of the Cognitive Processes Used in the Evaluation of Documentary and Pictorial Evidence." Journal of Educational Psychology 83 (1991): 73-87.

Wineburg, S. "Making Historical Sense." Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives. Eds. P. N. Stearns, P. Seixas, S. Wineburg. New York: New York University Press, 2000. pp. 306-326

Wineburg, S., ed. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001

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