How Digitized Primary Sources Have Transformed the Teaching of History

23 12 2011

I have recently been thinking about how the digitization of primary sources has helped to change the nature of the education given to history undergraduates. I should explain three things right away: I was an undergraduate in the 1990s, I now teach North American history at a British university, and I’m a strong believer in exposing undergraduates to primary sources. The latter is a key part of my teaching philosophy.

In my second- and third-year modules, the coursework is typically built around an online primary source, such as a digitised newspaper. I use digital resources to expose my students to a broader range of primary and secondary sources than would have been possible when I was an undergraduate back in the 1990s. The digitisation of many primary sources in the past decade means that it is increasingly feasible for undergraduates to access materials such as historical newspapers or even the transcribed correspondence of political leaders. In the 1990s, many history students wrote ther essays without ever using any primary sources beyond, perhaps, a transcription of a famous historical document or a speech by a leading statesman. Edited collections of primary sources were published, but they were expensive and biased towards particular types of history, particularly topics that focused on the activities of social elites.

The digitisation of sources such as local newspapers has allowed undergraduates to learn much more about a greater variety of individuals and historical topics. Our students can now read complete runs of nineteenth century small town newspapers from pretty much every state in the United States, Canada, and Australia. These resources are all free of charge. Working with primary sources enhances the intellectual training of students and gives them the satisfaction that they are directly engaged with historical texts. Many students get a thrill from looking at scanned images of historical texts (e.g., a nineteenth century newspaper complete with advertisements).

Let me give an example of how I use digitized primary sources. In my second-year module on United States history, all of the essay topics are structured around a particular online primary source. For instance, one of the essay topics a student could choose is: “How were Anglo-American relations covered in The United States Democratic Review between 1837 and 1859? What sorts of biases were evident in this publication’s reporting on Britain and its leaders?” Students are directed to use the online version of this publication, which is keyword searchable. http://ebooks.library.cornell.edu/u/usde/index.html

The students will soon discover that this publication was virulently Anglophobic.

Although undergraduates require extensive instruction before they engage in primary source research, the process can be rewarding for both students and the instructor. I have the advantage of teaching American history, which means that online primary sources are both plentiful and in a language that British undergraduates can understand. I would also note that copyright laws make it much harder to share primary sourcescreated after 1922 with undergraduates. For instance, archive.org contains few scanned images of books published after that date. Most books published in Britain or the United States before that date are, however, downloadable from archive.org.

Teaching US history at a British university can be challenging because the holdings of the relevant secondary sources in the university library can sometimes be incomplete. This problem can be particularly acute at what the British euphemistically refer to as “newer universities” (i.e., non-elite universities). Digitized primary sources can help us to address the problems caused by under-investment in library budgets.

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