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Using Primary Sources

July 14, 2021

It’s fair to think that when conducting research on a topic, a student will think to search for research articles and stop there. This is of course a perfectly adequate way to research a topic, but as an archivist, I can’t help but think students are missing out on quality sources by not considering primary sources. I’m biased, but there is a wealth of information often hidden in dusty boxes and the depths of the internet underutilized by researchers. There may be a misconception that archival materials are precious items that should be collected and locked behind a door, never to be seen again. While some of these items are fragile, these materials are begging to be read and viewed. Archivist’s want researchers to explore and learn from the materials. But how do we teach students to look for primary sources? I believe this needs to be a group effort from librarians, archivists, and professors to partner in promoting these collections. As archivists, we are the experts in what our collections contain, and often need to facilitate connections with faculty. Sharing collections via social media, presenting at faculty meetings and workshops, and building relationships with faculty all help to promote the use of archival materials.   

I’ve discovered in Widener University’s own archival collections interesting stories of marginalized voices that I know are used in some classes. A history course at Widener utilizes our George Raymond Papers, a collection of scrapbooks covering the Civil Rights Movement in Chester, Pa during the 1960s. Also, our Human Sexuality students often use materials from our Sexuality Archives in their course work. This is a great start and I am excited for future collaborations that may happen. I hope to partner with a faculty member in the future to teach using primary sources and share all of the interesting stories in our collections.   

Another misconception I’ve found is that archival materials can only be used in history courses or the broader humanities. I’ve recently spoken with colleagues about teaching with primary sources and the multidisciplinary opportunities collections offer. Maybe your collection has papers about an influential mathematician that can be added to a math course. Or maybe you have architectural drawings of buildings on your campus that engineering students would be interested in. There are endless possibilities. So, I encourage all to think outside the box, ask about the materials in your archives, spread the word, and promote the use of archival materials. They’re ready and waiting to be used.  

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