Book Review: Teaching with Primary Sources

This review originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of History News.

Teaching with Primary Sources
By Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe (eds.)
(Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2016)
Reviewed by Marietta Carr

Primary sources have long been a critical piece of the curricula at all levels of education, but recent changes to education standards, approaches to teaching, and library and archives services have increased the demand for robust instructional services and access to archival collections. Archivists have responded with creativity, variety, and pragmatism in meeting their communities’ teaching and learning needs. Teaching with Primary Sources, edited by Christopher J. Prom and Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, gathers some of the struggles archivists have faced and the solutions they have developed in delivering instructional services. The book is divided into three modules. Each module focuses on different aspects of the topic, ranging from theoretical frameworks to case studies and example assignments. As Hinchliffe explains in her introduction, the book is designed as a primer for instruction in academic archival contexts, but can be applied to cultural heritage organizations generally and used by busy educators looking for inspiration for impending primary source instruction sessions.

The first module lays out a theoretical framework of archival literacy and relates it to concepts and literacies commonly addressed in teaching and education literature such as information literacy, assessment, and domain knowledge. The second module moves into more practical ground by proposing solutions to possible barriers to teaching with archival materials. While the first module gives archivists the terminology and conceptual background necessary to engage with faculty, the second module is a how-to guide for implementing instructional services. The module includes tips for identifying resources like time and professional development, communicating with administrators and faculty, and creating lesson plans. The third module explores common themes expressed in case studies and interviews with archivists, college faculty, and a high school teacher. This module includes examples of assignments and class tools that can be adapted to each reader’s institutional situation.

Teaching with Primary Sources is an excellent overview of this trend in archival practice, especially for archivists with little formal teaching experience or training. Each module includes an appendix with suggestions for further reading so interested readers can delve further into the topic. There are several recurring themes that appear in each module. Perhaps the most prevalent theme is the authors’ emphasis on building relationships with educators. The authors point out that one of the most common instructional services is a single session within the context of a larger course. Strong collaborative relationships with faculty will make these sessions more effective and create opportunities to develop other types of instructional services. For example, one archivist reported that the professors he worked with revised their course learning objectives in response to feedback from archives staff. This theme also highlights two of the book’s weaknesses: a predominant concern for academic archival settings and a lack of input from K-12 teachers. The authors draw primarily from their own experiences as archivists in higher education institutions and interviews with other archivists and faculty.

While the academic archivist will benefit most directly from the authors’ advice, the book is written with the larger cultural heritage environment in mind and the authors’ solutions can be adapted to non-academic institutions. Online tools such as tutorials for accessing and citing materials can encourage college students to use non-academic archives. Creating programs for students in newer initiatives such as massive open online courses (MOOCs) and co-curricular programs in colleges’ education departments can benefit both the cultural heritage organization and the academic institution. The authors stress that selecting the right materials significantly impacts educators’ success in integrating primary sources into their curriculum or museum programming. For example, items with unique provenance or preservation histories will engage students and adult audiences and enable significant learning experiences. Educators must have clear and limited objectives for what they expect the audience to learn when working with their primary sources, recognizing that many individuals will likely lack necessary analytical skills such as visual literacy.


Marietta Carr is the College Archivist at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, OH. She holds an M.L.I.S from the University of Pittsburgh and an M.A. in History from Northeastern University, and can be reached at marietta.carr@tri-c.edu.

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