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