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Showing, Not Telling: Prezi & Omeka

Archives[This is a guest post by Caro Pinto, the John Hay Whitney Family Papers Processing Archivist at Yale University Library. Follow her on Twitter at @caropinto.--@jbj]
An Archivist Walks into a Classroom…

Many archivists spend their professional lives working in basements preparing diaries, letters, and photographs for use by students and faculty. Indeed, arrangement and description of such materials represents the bulk of my work as an archivist, but I also spend time in classrooms  teaching students how to discover and evaluate all kinds of information. Archivists do not usually find themselves in the classroom, but I am lucky enough to be an archivist who works directly with students and faculty. 

And why not? Archivists have at their disposal great props for teaching , making it easy to demonstrate and not just talk about materials from collections of manuscripts, records, and papers. In teaching more “traditional” bibliographic instruction sessions for first year students and for history majors, I teach hands-on by showing students how to engage with the research process. This avoids rambling narration and allows me to leverage some amazing twenty-first century information literacy  tools in my sessions, including primary sources,  Prezi and Omeka.

Since finishing graduate school with a degree in library science and and a powerful aversion to PowerPoint, I’ve hunted for an alternative demonstration tool and found it with Prezi. One of my chief complaints about PowerPoint is students’ limited opportunity to engage with the material they see in a slide. Prezi allows users to create live relationships between blocks of text or thought bubbles, dynamically – and daresay entertainingly – linking both pieces of information and the concepts that connect them. A recent classroom experience solidified my love for Prezi.

In the past, to familiarize students with the range of sources they could deploy when writing research papers, I have challenged them to pair a type of resource (scholarly, popular media, trade publication) with a paragraph of text taken from each representative resource. Leveraging Prezi’s ability to move between blocks of text and thought bubbles allowed students to move between all the types of sources and the paragraphs they had to read. The difference this made in this research education session was dramatic. Prezi is visually stunning, and it engaged the students and focused their attention. Since the exercise was a collective effort, they felt more empowered to engage and ask questions. By dynamically going back and forth between the passages and the types of resources together as a group, we were able to generate strong class discussion and make more granular comparisons between the types of resources available to students.

Teaching students about primary sources is a hallmark of history instruction. In my case, when teaching history students about how to locate primary resources at Yale, my go-to database is our Yale Finding Aid Database. The first time I demonstrate the database, students are sometimes uninterested because they are not always familiar with finding aids or primary source research. It’s often too easy to just explain what a finding aid is and talk about how researchers use them, and then demonstrate to students how to input search terms to find one. In recounting this process to you here I am already bored, so I can only imagine how students feel!

To combat the drudgery of this “telling,” I tend to provide an overview of the database once and then conduct an exercise where students have to use primary sources without any context of what they are, when they are from, or on what subject they might be most useful.. I ask them to come up with a paper topic based on primary sources I have handed out to them in folders, and then to reflect on something that was rewarding about working with primary sources and something that was challenging or frustrating. Students encounter several road blocks during this exercise: reading actual handwriting, encountering names of people they are unfamiliar with, and not knowing the context of events depicted in certain materials. When we reconvene, the students vent their frustrations to me about how they did not know anything about the people or events described in the material.

In spite of these hurdles, students enjoy working with the material and wax enthusiastic about how much fun it is to see first hand accounts of the civil rights movement or photographs from the 1901 World’s Fair. Holding onto their attention, I use their frustrations to frame the database search process once more, and students enjoy a “click” moment in which they can connect primary source materials with other secondary sources: as one student said in a recent research education session, “aha! This finding aid will tell me more about this guy receiving letters from racists!” In the end, students experience firsthand the interconnectedness of primary and secondary sources, that one type of source cannot exist without the other and that being able to discover and use both effectively are key skills. Or, as one of my students noted, “it’s totally awesome how this book about the civil rights helps me make better sense of this letter protesting separate but equal!”

Simply projecting a database onto a screen and then praising its capacity to discover and locate primary sources isn’t enough to engage students. Before teaching a recent session in conjunction with a course on photography and memory, I knew that I needed to demonstrate the finding aid database, but I wanted more than that in order to avoid glazed-over student eyes. I decided to build an Omeka site, which allowed me to showcase some of the digital  materials from our collection relevant to student research topics AND link out to our finding aids and the finding aid database. I demonstrated for students how images are connected to the finding aids indexed in our finding aid database. By leveraging Omeka to show students our resources and make clear the connection between the image and finding aid that it originates from with a url to refer back to, I lectured less and actively engaged more of the class. And best of all, having a website allowed me to give students a tangible reference tool they could access after the session was over. By providing access points in the images used in Omeka, students could use the subject headings from Omeka to locate secondary sources in our Online Public Access Catalog AND make the connection that primary and secondary sources work together for successful research.

One of goals of higher education is to mold our students into holistic researchers who can effectively discover and evaluate primary and secondary sources and critically apply them in academic and ‘real world’ contexts. My experiences offer encouragement for faculty, librarians, and archivists alike, that collectively we can leverage a range of tools and materials to make our students savvy consumers of information. Above all, my experiences prove that archivists don’t simply belong in basements or just as primary source cheerleaders, but as a bridge between special collections and traditional library resources. An archivist walking into a classroom shouldn’t be a set-up for a joke, but rather a step forward in 21st century research education best practices.

How has–or how might–library instruction become more dynamic on your campus? Let us know in comments!

Photo by Flickr user carmichaellibrary / Creative Commons licensed

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