How Do You Use Primary Source Collections? Here's How Some Libraries Are Making the Most of Them

August 20, 2018 Claire O'Neill

Isn’t it ironic that the further we advance technologically, the more our attention is called to the past?

When it comes to primary source collections, digitization has offered a sustainable means of preservation. If nothing else, it guarantees the longevity of original materials and safeguards them against the effects of time, wear and use.


But expanded technology transcends the creation of digital surrogates. Now, developments like advanced scanning techniques, optical character recognition, and sophisticated metadata are not only making fragments of the historical record accessible online, but are also enabling researchers and educators to discover and leverage entire primary source collections in brand new ways.

With the rise of these large-scale digitization projects comes a resurgence of the conversation around primary sources. Now that these collections have been made more visible and accessible, what effect does this have on teaching, learning and research? How do libraries effectively socialize these resources and ensure that they’re properly used, interpreted and integrated to align with critical research and educational outcomes?

We’re on a mission to find out! The Wiley Digital Archives team is currently surveying researchers, librarians and faculty to find out how an unprecedented wealth of primary source material is being used to bolster information literacy, pedagogy and research innovation.

In the meantime, I did a little digging to see what the community is currently doing to support the integration of primary sources into research and learning—and it seems it’s quite a lot!

Check out just a few of the initiatives I spotted around the web:


Front and center

An institution’s website is prime real estate when it comes to promoting resources and collections.  In Stanford University’s case, a specific page on the site is devoted to inviting students to explore its archives and integrate their primary source findings in their research and assignments. Included on the site is a host of helpful how-to’s, including guides for searching the archives, handling original materials, and leveraging these resources to enrich research projects and assignments.

Getting bloggy with it

Blogs are a collaborative way to discuss and exchange ideas, and many institutions are leveraging this modern method to promote awareness and engagement with primary sources and archive collections.

At the University of Notre Dame, the Rare Books & Special Collections Department has its own blog that features collection highlights, news about acquisitions, and information regarding relevant events and exhibits. With contributions from librarians and archivists to students and researchers, the blog offers a variety of perspectives which readers can relate to.  Article topics range from deep analyses of specific materials to broad musings on the value of primary sources as a whole. Not only can readers find tips on how to leverage these collections, but they can also hear about their real-life applications, as some authors reflect on how they themselves used a specific source or collection in their own work.


Embed a librarian into course-related instruction

Whether for an undergraduate or graduate-level class, librarians are proactively offering to teach sessions that specifically cater to the course at hand. At Georgetown University, for instance, faculty members can schedule a library instruction session to introduce students to relevant research materials that are specific to any given course assignment. Curated library resources, archives and databases help direct students to the materials that will be the most pertinent to their area of study. Similarly, at Stony Brook University, Rutgers University, and the University of Pittsburgh, instructors have invited librarians into the classroom to teach students where to start their primary source exploration, offer examples and follow-up materials, and facilitate discussion on how to garner the best results throughout the research journey.

Early intervention

Workshops and tutorials provide an open opportunity for libraries to reach faculty and researchers even before the research process begins. Though many may understand the value of primary sources to their work, they still may not be confident in their abilities to search, access and examine them.

At institutions like Boston University, Yale University, Princeton University, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, libraries are hosting open workshops and events designed to answer questions that faculty and researchers may have about archives collections, give tutorials on searchability and handling, and even teach attendees about the digitization process that makes archives more accessible.

Are you a librarian who has experience with digital archives and primary source collections? Let us know! Take the survey now.


About the Author

Claire O'Neill

Library Services, Wiley //

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