Primary Source Instruction: Accessibility through Resources from the AUC Robert W. Woodruff Library

By Margaret Holloway

Developing strong research skills has and continues to be the most in-demand need for my students who are mostly undergraduate freshman—more specifically, I want to develop instruction on how to find sources and figure out what to do with them.  The pandemic put this demand on center stage as I realized just how many students did not have the necessary skills to be successful in online environments and to conduct research in online spaces. Learning about types of sources, particularly primary sources, is a challenge that many of my students face because of the complexity of the research process; furthermore, many instructors experience challenges as well when delivering primary source instruction. In “Bridging the Gap: Competencies for Teaching with Primary Sources” Daines et al. (2022) argue that many faculty have little to no formal training on how to teach with primary sources. Yet, a lot of us have received “informal experience-based” instruction during our time as graduate students, collaboration amongst colleagues, library workshops, and professional conversations (857). This is exactly how I learned to teach with primary sources, which is why I always advocate for some type of formal instruction for students. More importantly though, my advocacy is rooted in accessibility and equity. As a Black professor who teaches a Black student population, I ensure that they not only have access to digital resources and technology but that they know how to effectively use them.

More importantly though, my advocacy is rooted in accessibility and equity. As a Black professor who teaches a Black student population, I ensure that they not only have access to digital resources and technology but that they know how to effectively use them.

In the case of primary source instruction, I go beyond the basic level of introducing students to these types of sources. I teach them why they are useful and how to use them in research through class activities and library sessions.  I have found it helpful when the course, in my case a writing course, is themed. For the sake of this reflection, I will discuss my approach to primary source instruction when I taught a themed writing course called “Writing and the 1619 Project.” As part of this themed writing course, students were required to complete a research project consisting of a research proposal, annotated bibliography, essay, and presentation.

When I taught this course (and when I teach any themed writing/research-based course), my first step was to set up library sessions for my students. I am grateful for the amazing subject librarians who provide innovative instruction that complements what I teach in the classroom. I always schedule an introductory session where the librarian teaches my students about the library’s website, the numerous digital resources available such as online help from librarians, citation guides, and how to navigate the library’s English/Composition webpage. The following sessions focus on other concepts and skills such as how to develop a research question, the differences between primary and secondary sources, and how to use those sources in their research projects. The library session about the different types of sources gives students hands-on experience with navigating digital collections and exhibits, understanding the importance of primary sources, and how they can be useful in students’ research projects. This session is also a great segue into the instructional class period that follows because students leave the session with foundational knowledge about primary and secondary sources. During the next class, I review with them what they learned with the librarian and spend the class period exploring one digital collection.

Collections and Exhibits at the Atlanta University Center Woodruff Library

For the 1619 Project writing course, students were introduced to digital archives and exhibits including the digital exhibit Black Neighborhoods and the Creation of Black Atlanta as part of the session about the resources accessible online. During the next class period, we focused on that same exhibit because it was related to the course’s theme. For those who may not be familiar with the various topics in the 1619 Project, there is one specifically on Atlanta and how racism shaped transportation in the city. The digital exhibit includes primary sources such as maps of neighborhoods and districts, newspaper clippings, and much more that tell the story of the growth of the African American population in Atlanta and the forced relocation of Black residents to West and South Atlanta. I was able to create their research project centered on this topic and included that exhibit as part of the primary sources option. Given the digital exhibit, there was no need for students to go to the library to conduct research with physical primary sources. They could access the entire exhibit from the library’s website and because they had completed several library sessions along with my class instruction, they were more knowledgeable about finding the most useful primary sources for their project. This approach of aligning library sessions with class sessions has continued to yield positive results for myself and my students; I have gained valuable pedagogical experience delivering primary source instruction while helping my students enhance their research skills. The library sessions (both virtual and in-person) have helped them become more comfortable with conducting research in an online environment. 

Map of Atlanta, GA Neighborhoods, 1970

When thinking about primary source instruction, I do agree with Michaela Ullmann (2021) who described the “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..”; but she goes on to say that there are “ new possibilities and perspectives” when it comes to digital primary source instruction. The many possibilities are what make digital primary source instruction much more accessible. Students are always amazed at the vast amount of digitized primary sources available with the click of the mouse. They complete the library sessions and my class with a deeper understanding of primary sources, experience working with these sources through digital collections and exhibits, and transferable research skills. The library sessions also renew my understanding of primary sources and provide me with ideas on how to enhance my pedagogy.

I want to thank the staff at the Atlanta University Center Robert Woodruff Library for always being accommodating, for offering innovative instruction to my students, and for providing me with resources to deliver formal primary source instruction in the classroom.

Daines, J Gordon, and Dainan M Skeem. 2022. “Bridging the Gap: Competencies for Teaching with Primary Sources.” Portal: Libraries and the Academy 22 (4): 855–78.

Newberry, B. (n.d.). Exhibit overview. AUC Woodruff Library Digital Exhibits.

Ullmann, Michaela. “Building a Toolkit for Synchronous and Asynchronous Delivery of Primary Source Literacy Instruction, Now and Post-Covid-19.” TPS Collective. March 25, 2021.

Margaret Holloway is an Assistant Professor of English at Clark Atlanta University. Her research and scholarship focus on Rhetoric and Composition, specifically First-Year Writing, and Digital Humanities.