Early college students need step-by-step instruction on how to understand a primary source. They must acquire and practice foundational skills well before they can learn to pose research questions, search finding aids, or sift through whole boxes from archival collections. That’s why the exercises on TeachArchives.org focus exclusively on modeling item-level document analysis skills to students who are new to archives.
It can be challenging for instructors with extensive experience using primary sources in their own scholarly work to recall what it’s like to be a student who doesn’t yet have the skills and contextual knowledge we educators take for granted.
We encourage instructors to break down the process of analyzing a given document into simple steps, to articulate even the most basic actions (“look,” “read”), and to provide students with ample time. (Always provide more time than appears necessary!) Teachers should create specific prompts tailored to each document instead of recycling the same generic questions often given to students using primary sources.
To help teachers design new in-archives exercises, we have identified the following skills which are integral to successful document analysis:
Make Observations about the Object
These observations can also lead to more complex inferences. A wax seal on a slave bill of sale can reveal important information about how legal documents were authenticated in colonial New York. A jam-packed but neatly indexed scrapbook of hate mail to a well-known abolitionist tells students about how he was viewed by the scrapbook compiler, not just by the correspondents.
Read the Document
Most primary sources do not lend themselves to the type of superficial scanning we all increasingly do online.2 It’s particularly important to instruct students to read handwritten documents. Deciphering 18th- and 19th-century handwriting requires slow, focused reading. Having small groups work collaboratively to transcribe brief manuscripts forces students to read word by word and prepares them to effectively analyze the source.
In exercises using visual documents, teachers should likewise model the process of looking for students unprepared to “read” visual materials. Directed prompts which do this are especially helpful in courses that do not explicitly practice formal analysis.3
Visits to the archives ideally end with a wrap-up exercise in which students articulate what they observed, read, and discussed. One way to do this is to have students give an impromptu speech summarizing their experience. The exercise’s time limit pushes students to prioritize important information and set aside less central details.
Contextualize the Documents
Of course, students will realize that primary sources often raise more questions than they answer. Faculty with whom we work have observed that visiting the archives makes students more motivated to conduct secondary research than with traditional term paper assignments and that, because of this engagement, students seem more apt to retain the newly-acquired contextual knowledge.
Beyond Document Analysis
Intermediate Analysis Skills
With effective pedagogical design, some early college students may be able to:
- compare and contrast groups of primary sources
- use primary sources alongside a secondary source
- cite primary sources as evidence in an argument
Advanced Archival Research Skills
Only after much practice with document analysis will students be able to:
- pose research questions which can be answered by primary sources
- search finding aids and catalogs
- identify and select archival material to use
- independently request collections and make appointments
- look through whole folders or boxes of materials
- properly cite archival collections without assistance
2) Jacob Neilsen, “Why Web Users Scan Instead of Reading,” 1 Oct 1997.
3) For more on formal analysis, see “Understanding Formal Analysis” from the Getty’s education department.
Julie Golia and Robin M. Katz, “What Is Document Analysis?,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/document-analysis/.