Primary Sources: K-12

As an intern in the History of Medicine Division of the National Library of Medicine, much of what I do relates to the digitization of analog materials. Digitization increases access when people who are unable travel to the physical item  can see the materials virtually from any computer. This is great news because getting information to researchers is of highest priority.

But the term “researcher” may conjure up a mental image that is not reflective of the demographic I personally consider the most interesting beneficiaries of digitized primary sources – K-12 students. How kids react to and learn from digitized historic materials is fascinating, as are the methods of presentation and usage employed by their teachers.

In late June, I had the opportunity to sit in on a workshop that focused on exactly this. Hosted by the Exhibition Program at the National Library of Medicine, the 2014 Teacher Institute brought together school librarians from throughout the region. The little group was gregarious, taking very seriously their responsibilities of review and commentary on current NLM online resources and the drafting of future NLM online resources for K-12 education.

The information exchange between the school librarians and the exhibitions team was incredible; the discussion was eye opening and candid. I was impressed by the significance of allowing students to interact with primary sources to engage their developing skills of critical thinking, analysis, and synthesis. Although the academic exercises crafted around the materials are carefully constructed for student advancement, the documents themselves were made for entirely different purposes. As students interact with and absorb the information presented by primary sources, they aren’t simply pulling answers from the text – they are reading smudges on the pages, creases to the corners, and notes in the margins.

With my archival background, I comprehend how to organize materials for those seasoned professionals defined by the term “researcher.” This is inadequate mediation for K-12 students. As my understanding of how teachers effectively integrate primary sources into the classroom grew, so did my understanding of the archivist’s role in the process. Because K-12 students cannot synthesize the raw information as seasoned professionals can, primary source materials must be vetted and structured for classroom use. This starts when the repository decides what materials to digitize and develops suggestions for the presentation of and interaction with those materials. It is from these resources that educators facilitate and structure the learning process through activities, lesson plans, and carefully selected primary sources.

Primary sources carry a feeling of “realness” and opportunities for abstract thinking. These experiences are difficult to gain through a textbook and test, but are incredibly enriching to the educational process. Digitized primary source materials serve students just as they serve traditional researchers – the physical materials are unlikely to ever be accessed by any students, but dozens of students can simultaneously access a single document virtually.

To be truly useful for K-12 students, a little extra (and specific) processing is necessary for digitized materials. Yet there is a surprising lack of literature available to archivists on how to do this. The National Library of Medicine is fortunate enough to have an Exhibitions Program with experts in interpretation of cultural heritage materials. But most repositories do not have the resources to support such a program. Although it seems almost unfathomable to add additional responsibilities to already overextended archivists, we as a profession must begin to consider K-12 students as part of our patron base – our researchers. And we must begin developing best practices for how to serve them.


By Kelsey Conway

Edu-tainment at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Since I first heard about the Smithsonian Folklife Festival back in February of this year, I knew that it was one of the first things that I (a recent DC transplant) needed to check out. Although I am not one to be aware of important social events at any given time (I completely forgot that the President’s inauguration was happening in my city, and actually made plans to go out of town that weekend), I try to stay on top of any cultural happenings, especially if they are related to music. Needless to say, I was very surprised that I had never heard of the Folklife Festival prior to learning about it in class this past spring semester.

Although it takes place arguably during the hottest week in the year in Washington D.C. (right around the Independence Day holiday), there were droves of locals and tourists who had showed up to witness the Festival.

The theme was “Hungary,” and the area of the Festival was split into two areas, those with programs about Hungarian culture, and a second half, which was dubbed “One World, Many Voices,” and had stories, songs, food, and dance from cultures all over the world, specifically those that have endangered languages and cultures. I was somewhat unsure where to head first, so I decided to go over to the Hungarian programs, since that was the theme for this year.

I witnessed traditional Hungarian dancing (in which both Hungarians and Americans were involved), traditional Hungarian cooking (with a really cool overhead mirror so that the crowd could see how the food was being prepared), and traditional decorative furniture. I was able to listen to a bit of music over there, played by a man who makes traditional Zithers as well as other instruments. He played for us a bit, and was answering questions about the instrument. Although I was intrigued, and wanted to stay for a while longer to hear this man speak about his craft, I had to be satisfied with him answering a few questions, as I was trying to experience everything before the day was over.

I headed over to the second half of the festival, and was instantly drawn to the tent emitting a vibrant, exciting kind of music made for dancing. I learned that these were the Garifuna people—an African diaspora culture mainly found in coastal regions of Central America, but also in New York City and Los Angeles. They were here to party, and everyone in the audience had the party vibe too: everyone was dancing, singing, clapping, or shouting. They were amazing, and I only wished that they could play for longer.

Garifuna performance

Folks movin’ and groovin’ at the performance.

I was able to learn more about the Garifuna people over at their tent, where they had instruments, photos, and books documenting the history of their culture. There were also a handful of Garifuna people there that you could talk to. I was excited to get over there and start asking them about their music: how it’s passed down through generations, or if they have music “masters” in their culture, things like that.

I learned that their music is heavily based in percussion and dancing—two things that were obvious from their performance. What was not obvious, however, was that their music (unlike most other traditional African diaspora music) was not recorded or historically documented until the mid-1990s. Equally as shocking was the lack of people coming over to talk with the Garifuna people, seeing as the performance was packed.

This made me think a bit about the divide that sometimes exists between endangered intangible cultural heritage and the general knowledge of the culture. Many, many people were enjoying the Garifuna music as entertainment, but where was everyone looking to learn more about the culture and its history? Although I’m not one to break up a party, I feel as though some element of teaching should have occurred during the performance. That way, people could have learned more about this endangered culture while still enjoying the show.

All in all, I think the Folklife Festival was a great way for others to experience the society and history of some endangered cultures. It would be even better though if we could have learned a little bit more while we party.