Wednesday, September 24, 2014

RAO Hot Topics Blog Series:

The Value of Teaching with Primary Sources

Lisa Sjoberg, SAA RAO Chair

In their 2008 book titled iBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind, authors Small and Vorgan discuss how technology alters brain synapses because of the multitasking the electronic age demands.[1] These authors and countless others suggest that while people are connecting through numerous tools, they are losing the ability to engage deeply with information, ideas, and, most importantly, people. Small and Vorgan for example state, “Our laptops, fax machines, and instant messages pressure us into quick responses that force us to sacrifice detail and accuracy. Many people are replacing depth and subtlety…with quick mental facts that may only skim the surface.”[2] Kathleen Parker discusses this idea in a July 2012 opinions piece she wrote for The Washington Post where she questions: “What about rising generations who have spent a frightening percentage of their lives consuming data in a random world of tweets, blogs and food-fight commentators, for whom fame is a goal and reality a show? Once accustomed to such high-velocity infotainment, how does one develop tolerance for the harder reads and the deeper conversations?”[3]

The nature of archival collections are the antithesis to the speedy answers, quick mental facts, and surface skimming that Small and Vorgan suggest the electronic age endorses. Our users cannot simply Google an abridged version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt papers.  Our collections require reading, examination, and thought. I liken these differences in information seeking to the slow food movement. Rather than stopping by McGoogle to consume over processed, microwaved information, archival research (with both physical and digital primary sources) promotes starting with the raw ingredients, sautéing them, and letting them simmer. Rather than slow food, however, it is slow research. Parker states, “Learning to read critically is no less important than reading itself.”[4] What an amazing way to defy a frenzied lifestyle.

Teaching with primary sources is one way I find myself living dangerously for archives as SAA President Kathleen Roe has recently called our profession to do. With so many competing demands on students’ time, it is challenging to teach students the value of reading carefully and critically. Julia Hendry offers a quotation in her 2007 American Archivist article that I come back to on a regular basis in my daily work of teaching with primary sources: “What better way to ensure that the policy makers and voters of tomorrow are both critical thinkers and sensitive to archival concerns than to introduce them at an early age to the usefulness of archives?”[5] I couldn’t agree more. What are you doing to live dangerously for archives?

[1] Gary Small & Gigi Vorgan, IBrain: Surviving the Technological Alteration of the Modern Mind. (NewYork: Collins Living, 2008).
[2] Small & Vorgan, IBrain, 67.
[3] Kathleen Parker, “How to Get Smart: News Literacy Programs Train Readers to Look Beyond Infotainment,” Washington Post, July 17, 2012.
[4] Parker, “How to Get Smart,”
[5] Julia Hendry, “Primary Sources in K-12 Education: Opportunities for Archives,” The American Archivist 70, no. 1 (2007): 129.

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