Building a Toolkit for Synchronous and Asynchronous Delivery of Primary Source Literacy Instruction, Now and Post-Covid-19

By Michaela Ullmann

In my role as Instruction Coordinator for Special Collections at the USC Libraries, I oversee our Primary Source Literacy Instruction Program through which we currently teach between 100 and 150 instruction sessions annually.

In the past three years, we have been able to expand the number of classes we teach because our Reference and Instruction Librarian took on a substantial teaching load while I concentrated mostly on strategic decisions, outreach, assessment, and advocacy for the instruction program. We are a relatively small department. Subject specialists teach classes in their subject area, but the majority of classes are taught by our Reference and Instruction Librarian and myself. In February 2020 however, my colleague in this contract position moved on to a permanent position at another institution. So, when we moved to online teaching in March 2020, I faced two challenges: transforming our teaching so that it would be engaging in an online environment, and doing it without a designated instruction librarian.

With just a few classes left to teach, I used the remaining sessions to familiarize myself with teaching online, and I used the end of the spring semester to strategically prepare for the fall.

Fortunately, by the time we went online, we had already taught about two thirds of the spring semester’s class visits. With just a few classes left to teach, I used the remaining sessions to familiarize myself with teaching online, and I used the end of the spring semester to strategically prepare for the fall. Based on my situation as well as on the needs of students and faculty, a toolkit was needed through which I could deliver the most important content to students asynchronously

Over the summer, I started to build the toolkit Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries and Beyond in Scalar by creating the first teaching modules. Scalar is a USC-developed, open-access, online publishing platform. Many colleagues at USC and at other institutions use Scalar to build digital exhibits as Scalar is easy to learn, visually attractive, and allows for users to peruse the contents in a non-linear way. While I chose Scalar for my toolkit, I believe that my approach to content development and delivery could be accomplished with other platforms or tools as well.

In designing the toolkit, a number of factors were integral for me:

  • The toolkit must support synchronous and asynchronous teaching & learning.
  • And the toolkit must be sustainable and stay relevant, which means that the content must still be current and useful after the Covid-19 pandemic. For this reason, I chose not to address the pandemic in the content we created, and to not show staff wearing masks, or even specific staff members.
  • The platform must also be expandable, so that additional content can be added over time.

For the introductory chapter “Special Collections at the USC Libraries”, I broke down the content I usually deliver in an instruction session into various topical pages, such as a page with a general overview, a page discussing what primary sources are, a page discussing archival silences and biases in library collections, and pages providing guidance on how to search for rare books or archival materials. Fortunately, the presentation I use for in-person instruction was already organized into logical themes or “chapters”, so that it was easy for me to transform it into these thematic pieces without having to create something entirely from scratch. This chapter provides the most introductory material about our department and primary source literacy in general.

With a small working group, we created video tutorials using Camtasia and Zoom for many of the topics in the toolkit that I then embedded into the thematic pages in Scalar. For many topics, I created activities through which students could deepen their knowledge and check the learned content asynchronously. Some of these activities are basic Google quizzes which release the correct answers after the students complete each quiz, while other activities provide detailed instructions for students to follow. For example, on the page about Artists’ Books, instructions are provided which invite students to make their own artist book. Many pages also feature additional reading suggestions so students can expand their knowledge about a given topic.

After the first chapter with the most relevant and immediately-needed content was created and promoted, I started working on additional content. I reached out to colleagues for their expertise in authoring content. Over the summer, we added chapters on “Rare Books”, “Archives”, “A short History of the (mostly Western) Book”, and “Electronically available Primary Sources”, with various other topics in production, such as “Analyzing various kinds of Primary Sources”, and “Resources for Instructors”.

In a way, the pandemic forced me to finally develop a toolkit that I had long been thinking about and that helps me navigate challenges that we have been facing for years.

In a way, the pandemic forced me to finally develop a toolkit that I had long been thinking about and that helps me navigate challenges that we have been facing for years. Going forward, the Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries and Beyond teaching toolkit will continue to allow me and my colleagues to release information to students ahead of a class visit, thus gaining more time for in-class and active-learning with the physical materials. We also plan to continue using the toolkit to deliver basic learning outcomes to students without me or my colleagues having to visit each class, and we can use the toolkit to better facilitate large classes, either by taking our instruction completely online or by using the toolkit in tandem with fewer of our physical materials than we did before.

Personally, I do not think that primary source literacy could or should be taught completely online. There are many elements about the engagement with primary sources that do not translate well into the online environment–for example weight, texture, material, smell, feel, and the affective impact that occurs when handling a historic artifact. I am, however, intrigued by the new possibilities and perspectives that have opened up as a result of us adapting our instruction work, and I am excited to continue learning and using some of these new tools and approaches.

In conclusion, I want to thank everyone who helped with building the teaching toolkit: my colleagues who authored pages and who helped create the video tutorials, those who provided their technical & Scalar expertise, my instruction interns and my instruction student worker assistant, my supervisor who supported my efforts, the instructors who collaborated with me and provided feedback, and the TPS community for always inspiring new ideas and for creating such a welcoming and supportive environment.

Michaela Ullmann is the Exile Studies Librarian and Instruction Coordinator for Special Collections at the University of Southern California Libraries. Michaela also regularly teaches a course on Better Teaching with Rare Materials: Critical Approaches at the California Rare Book School at UCLA.