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

They’re Just Like Us!

Written by Justine Rothbart


While flipping through the University of Mary Washington (UMW) Yearbook, The Battlefield, I came across this photograph:

Midnight Feast Club, The Battlefield, 1914

Midnight Feast Club, The Battlefield, 1914

When I first saw it, I almost laughed out loud! It wasn’t just the nature of the photo that was surprising, but the date. This photo is from the 1914 edition of The Battlefield. To put it into context, this was almost 100 years ago and just two years after the Titanic sank. The photo looks as if these students are having fun dressing up in their pajamas, staying up late, and eating a midnight snack. They are obviously trying to make it look funny. It’s so surprising this “Midnight Feast Club” actually existed! As a student at the University of Mary Washington at the time, it reminded me of the times I would hang out with my friends in our dorm rooms. Ok, of course I would never dress like that, but it got me thinking, are we really that much different today?

My junior and senior year at Mary Washington (Fall 2009 – Spring 2011) in Fredericksburg, Virginia, I was the Student Aide at the UMW Special Collections. In the spring of 2011 I assisted in the UMW Yearbooks digitization project. I worked with the UMW Special Collections Librarian, Carolyn Parsons, to prepare the yearbooks for the digitization process. This is when I first saw the “Midnight Feast Club” photo and when I really began to know the yearbooks. In these yearbooks I saw a photo of the Basket Ball Team from 1920 posing in front of the same building where I just went to class. I saw a photo of the students in 1952 walking up the same stairs I walked up just a few hours before. I saw a photo of the student from 1972 going into the same dorm I lived in freshman year. Even though I never knew these students, looking through the yearbooks made me feel like we’re not so different.

My experience working in the UMW Special Collections led me to my current studies in Cultural Heritage Information Management at Catholic University. I want others to make that connection with the past the same way I did with the yearbooks. I want others to think, “Hey, that could be me!” Having the archival collection speak for itself might be it’s biggest advocate.

Here’s a video of the exhibit I designed and created about The Battlefield digitization project:

And who knows, the next time you look in the archives, maybe you’ll see yourself.

Click here to see The Battlefield. 

Click here to learn more about the UMW Special Collections.