Original articles by academic faculty, librarians and other researchers.


"I am scholar—hear me roar! Primary materials rule." Students Test the Scholar in the Digital Archive

I love putting history on trial in my undergraduate courses. These students still typically think of history as finding, identifying or uncovering a set of hard facts, but, as Hayden White reminds us, history has a subjective dimension—historians construct claims, create narratives, interpret facts, build cases, possess agendas, have pre-dispositions. History is much more interesting than students sometimes think.

Well, there's no better place to put history on trial—that is, to experience the role that invention plays in the writing of history—than the massive digital collections in the Archive of Americana®. And while working with these collections there is a generic assignment I have found valuable in assisting undergraduates be critical thinkers about history that I call "Testing the Scholar."

Let's test the scholar, I say, by first understanding the scholar's argument and then forming our own judgments by investigating virtually the same bundle of data, tapping the inherent power of access to rich primary materials.

Let's take a representative example of this exercise from Early American Imprints, Series I: Evans, 1639-1800. Let's say we want to learn about execution sermons—a topic sure to have "curb appeal" for undergraduates.

If we click through the "Genre" tab to the healthy list of subcategories under sermons, there is a category for execution sermons. There are 90 such sermons in this grouping, about 65 first editions, not an impossible task for a class of, say, 20 or 30 students to divide up, read and hold in their group consciousness.

The first thing I would do is have the students read Ronald Bosco's "Lectures at the Pillory: The Early American Execution Sermon"—an essay that covers precisely the time period as Early American Imprints, Series I—and, as a class, identify all Bosco's claims, both major and minor.

"I am scholar—hear me roar! Primary materials rule." Students Test the Scholar in the Digital Archive


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