In-class activities are a powerful tool to introduce students to engaging with primary source materials and to teach students archival literacy and critical thinking skills. Either in the online environment or in-person, through the activity, students are provided an opportunity to critically analyze primary source materials, to reflect about the material aspects of a primary source and what they can tell us about an item's use and owner, and about biases, silences, and intentions.
Depending on your intended learning outcomes, many of our activity templates also contain an activity for which students need to perform a search of our finding aids This activity teaches students important research and archival literacy skills and is a result of several surveys we conducted that show that students often lack the skills to locate, access, and request primary source materials.
More on potential learning outcomes.
The templates provided here can easily be customized to the instructor's specific learning outcomes and to the subject of the course. Elements can easily added to the activity sheets or left out.
Analyzing Primary Sources Critically and Approaching the Book as an Artifact Activity Templates
Analyzing Primary Sources Critically
Approaching the Book as an Artifact
Preparation of Materials
We suggest to have students work in teams or small groups of three or four students. Each group receives a selected group of primary sources to work with. When providing students with the materials to use in the activity, our experience shows that it is best to present students with a limited amount of pre-selected materials, no more than one to maybe four items per group. This way, students have enough time to explore the materials without getting overwhelmed.
In an online environment, students can be presented with the materials by creating Google folders with the selected scans or videos of primary source materials, or they can be directed to materials in the USC Digital Library, in databases, or other online repositories. A librarian will be happy to assist with the selection and access to these materials.
Before the activity, it is important that students have a general understanding of primary sources and USC Libraries primary source repositories. This will provide them with the foundation to conduct the activity. Instructors can have students complete chapter 1 of this platform (Special Collections at USC Libraries), or invite a librarian to the class to give an introduction.
Afterwards, students are divided into the teams or groups and each group receives an activity sheet and the materials to work with. In the online environment, the groups are provided links to the Google folders containing the materials and the activity sheet. Depending on the time available and the number of items to analyze, the groups have between 15-30 minutes to work through the questions on the activity sheet.
During the group work, the instructor (and librarian) visit the groups to check in on them and guide their research. It is recommended not to provide the students to the answers to their questions, or to provide details about the materials as the activity tries to replicate the research experience patrons have when consulting primary sources in a reading room. One of the goals of the activity is for students to learn to ask more questions, and to reflect about how they might find the answers to those questions.
The instructor should give the students a five minute warning, asking students to prepare to present their findings.
Presentation & Conclusion & Assessment
In the final part of the activity, the groups present the materials that they looked at and their findings to the class. It is recommended that in the online environment, the instructor or one of the students share the materials with the class, so that other groups can see the materials as well. Students go over their findings and address any challenges they experienced with their materials. The instructor and other students can chime in or ask additional questions. The presentation serves the instructor to assess if the learning outcomes were accomplished or if there is a need to delve deeper into certain areas. In addition to the verbal presentation, the students can be asked to submit or provide the activity sheets to the instructor.
Once all presentations have been completed, the instructor can engage in a final discussion with the class, for example about what students learned that they did not know before, what engaging with the primary sources changed about the way they looked at the research process, or what challenges/benefits looking at electronic vs looking at physical materials has.
Identifying & Understanding Archival Silences Activity
In the following activity, students will practice analyzing a source from USC Special Collections to put into practice some of the concepts they have learned from the chapter on Archival Silences. This exercise is inspired by Blake Spitz's activity for Structured Close-Looking that can be found here.
Ask students to follow along below, answering the questions as they go.
By doing this exercise, students will be able to:
- identify, interrogate, and consider the reasons for silences, gaps, contradictions, or evidence of power relationships in the documentary record and how they impact the research process.
- critically evaluate the perspective of the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source.
Identifying and Understanding Archival Silences Exercise (Exercise created by Becca Gates)