A New Resource Helps Students Learn How to Use Primary Sources Effectively

Instructors and librarians don’t have to look very far to find examples of how college students often struggle to use primary sources effectively in their research.


Instructors and librarians don’t have to look very far to find examples of how college students often struggle to use primary sources effectively in their research. For instance, the number of misconceptions that exist about COVID-19 is proof that many people, students included, could use some basic training in how to find, understand, and critically evaluate sources of information.

Now, a new resource from academic publisher Adam Matthew Digital aims to fill this essential need. Called Research Methods Primary Sources, it’s an online learning tool for developing primary source literacy that can be integrated into classroom-based and online teaching, as well as independent study.

Research Methods Primary Sources equips students with the skills they need to understand and interact with primary sources. It includes case studies, “how-to” guides, and video interviews with experts in a wide range of subject areas, covering knowledge and skills such as…

  • How to critically evaluate primary sources.
  • How to understand perspective and bias within sources.
  • How to explore and interact with digital archives.
  • How to understand underrepresented voices within archives.
  • How to use digital tools such as data mining.
  • How to work within various types of archives and collections.

“There are many online repositories that contain primary sources,” says Robin Katz, a primary source literacy teaching librarian for the University of California Riverside. “But the fact that Adam Matthew is providing the additional context students need to use these resources effectively is very exciting.”

Hands-on learning

Research Methods Primary Sources includes about 150 case studies that explain how subject matter experts work with specific types of sources, such as correspondence, financial records, and newspapers. The case studies also illustrate how researchers use primary sources to explore particular themes, such as revolution, gender, or indigenous histories.

In addition, there are lessons that show students how to use data sets to enrich their research, including how to form questions and run queries to support their investigations.

The platform incorporates more than 350 primary-source documents drawn from Adam Matthew’s archival partners around the globe. This diverse set of historical documents enables students to apply the skills they’re learning in a practical, hands-on context.

For instance, students might watch a video discussing why some sources are archived while others aren’t. Then, they might read a guide about how to research marginalized groups. To apply what they’ve learned, they might dive into a case study on using primary sources to investigate race and discrimination, using documents from Adam Matthew’s African American Communities digital archive.

“Students have a chance to practice these skills for themselves using actual primary sources,” says Jennifer Kemp, deputy managing director for Adam Matthew.

Interpreting the ‘raw data of history’

The platform grew out of conversations with instructors and librarians about the skills students need to interact with primary sources in their research—skills that are often lacking among undergraduates in particular.

Katz was one of the advisors on the project. She says students come to college with widely varying skills in using primary sources. Providing support for how to use these resources effectively “is an opportunity to level the playing field,” she observes.

Katz says many librarians teach these skills on an ad hoc basis. Having a resource like Research Methods Primary Sources enables college and university librarians to scale this support for students much more broadly.

Integrating primary sources into instruction makes the learning more engaging, she says, noting: “There’s something cool about the humanization of history and the personal connection that students can make with primary sources.”

But the real power of using a primary source is that it requires researchers to interpret the source for themselves. “You’re not being handed an interpretation or a narrative around it,” Katz explains. “It’s the raw data of history. You get to interrogate it and come to your own conclusions.”

That can be a very empowering and rewarding experience for students, if they know what they’re doing. Research Methods Primary Sources will give students the skills and understanding they need to take full advantage of primary sources as tools for research and learning.

The platform will be available later this year. Librarians can find more information about this resource here.


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