Engaging the public with digital primary sources
First Monday

Engaging the public with digital primary sources: A tri-state online history database and learning center by Laurie Mercier and Leslie Wykoff

This collaborative database project, involving five universities and historical societies in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, has sought to encourage online researchers to think more deeply about the digitized primary sources featured. The project intended to serve as a model for other institutions that wanted to share collections and stimulate public interest in and use of those collections. This essay focuses on how we incorporated pedagogical elements into the design of the database, and how we have encouraged K–12 teachers and college students to use it.


The archive
Discussion board





The Columbia River Basin Ethnic History Archive (CRBEHA) project, funded by an IMLS grant from 2001 through 2003, involved the collaboration of Washington State University Vancouver (WSUV), Idaho State Historical Society, Oregon Historical Society, Washington State Historical Society, and Washington State University Pullman.

The broad goals of the project were to develop an active partnership to build a database that addressed a topic of regional and national significance; to demonstrate that libraries and museums can integrate multiple technologies to increase public use of and understanding of their collections; to expand the general public’s "information literacy" by providing online tutorials that instruct how to find and interpret resources available in museums and libraries; and, to increase public knowledge of the regionís diverse ethnic groups and their histories through direct engagement with online resources and discussion leaders.

Although many institutions have embraced digital archives to make their collections more accessible, few have joined in multi–state efforts to combine resources concerning a specific topic to explore the medium’s teaching potential. From the outset of planning the project, we sought to make the Web site more interactive than scores of digital archives now inhabiting the Internet. As Carl Smith noted in the American Historical Association’s newsletter, many Web sites "seduce the senses without engaging the mind" (Smith, 1998). While digitizing and making available collections through the Internet has been a laudatory goal, we wanted to push this accessibility further to more deeply engage users with the rich historical sources that the database would highlight, exploiting the pedagogical and interactive possibilities of the medium.

To accomplish this, we designed the three major components of the Web site to provide users the tools by which they could become their own historians. The core of the site, the digital archive, introduces visitors to the wealth of primary source materials that can illuminate the study of Pacific Northwest ethnic groups. In the second major section, interactive tutorials instruct how to locate library secondary sources and archival primary sources, how to evaluate and interpret primary sources, and how to incorporate and teach library and museum resources in the classroom. Finally, the discussion board section encourages students and the general public to share their discoveries and engage in more sophisticated use and analysis of library and museum collections.


The archive

Figure 1: CRBEHA
Figure 1: CRBEHA http://www.vancouver.wsu.edu/crbeha/.

Our collaboration allowed us to create a richer archive by pooling individual collections. Partners involved in the project selected representative items from their collections, worked with project staff to develop protocols, and helped make decisions about content. We wanted the site to support museums’ traditional mission of attracting patrons to their institutions, and each item, cataloged on CONTENT software, clearly indicates ownership. The digital collection constitutes the most significant archive about non–Native American ethnic groups in the Pacific Northwest. While maintaining the integrity of its parts, the collective archive encourages exploration and understanding of the general history of each of the ethnic groups profiled through the digitized items, instructive tutorials, and narratives.

Figure 2: Browse the archive
Figure 2: Browse the archive.

Users can search the entire database by keyword, material type, date, subject, or institution, or by highlighted ethnic group.

Figure 3: Japanese Americans section of archive
Figure 3: Japanese Americans section of archive.

Each section links to an historical overview that introduces users to the general history of the ethnic group in the Pacific Northwest.

Figure 4: Japanese Americans historical overview
Figure 4: Japanese Americans historical overview.

The overviews synthesize the available secondary literature and provide a bibliography, and they also incorporate new information from the selected photographs, written materials, oral history interviews, and artifacts from the database. The overviews are examples of "historians at work," as they rely on the archive for information about the lives of people in the region.

Figure 5: Japanese American historical overview cont.
Figure 5: Japanese American historical overview cont.

These digital narratives attempt to pull the user into exploring the collection. For example, in the Japanese American section about 1920s cultural activities, images of a program for a Japanese Women’s Society annual event and a doll invite users to click on the images and learn more about the particular source.

Figure 6: Miss Nara collection
Figure 6: Miss Nara collection.

One then opens up to an assortment of other items presented by the Japanese Committee on International Friendship Among Children. So the item (whether photograph, oral history, or artifact in this case) is something with its own history, rather than just an illustration, and it is contextualized.

Figure 7: Detail of doll
Figure 7: Detail of doll.

One can dig deeper and find out more about each of the associated items.



Figure 8: Tutorials
Figure 8: Tutorials.

The second major section of the Web site, "Tutorials and lesson plans," is designed to extend engagement with the digital database and to teach the historian’s craft. Here, teachers, students, and general users are introduced to the categories of primary and secondary sources and may select one of six tutorials under "Locating materials" or "Interpreting materials."

Figure 9: Locating materials: Boolean search Chinese AND Business
Figure 9: Locating materials: Boolean search Chinese AND Business.

From our years of teaching and library work, we knew we could not assume that people knew how to conduct simple searches, much less navigate an archive, so we provided specific instructions on searching techniques. Under "Locating materials" there are tutorials on searching the CRBEHA database, using simple examples of Boolean operators. Also included here is a more complex strategy for searching a Pacific Northwest ethnic history question in library databases, represented in the tutorial by America: History and Life.

Figure 10: Questions and links to WA ethnology and Hanford Church
Figure 10: Questions & links to WA ethnology and Hanford Church.

In tutorials that explain how to interpret written documents, oral history interviews, artifacts, and photographs, users are encouraged to "read" these sources with a critical eye and consider factors and questions that go beneath the surface. The tutorials attempt to problematize these sources by scrutinizing what and how museums and libraries collect. Students and others learn that in researching ethnic history, reports produced by officials and observers outside the cultural group need to be examined in an appropriate context. For example, in the tutorial about interpreting written documents, users are asked to examine a 1938 ethnographic report on African American communities in the state and a "Memory book" produced by a black church in Hanford during the Second World War. After studying the documents, the user returns to the tutorial to think about a series of questions that probe the nature of the sources. She is asked for tentative interpretations and conclusions that might be drawn about Washington state African American communities during this time period.

Figure 11: Hanford Church membership roll
Figure 11: Hanford Church membership roll.

The tutorial examples reveal to teachers, students, and general users how valuable (and what valuable teaching tools) are museum and archival materials. For example, in this excerpt from the Hanford Community Church "Memory book," students can be asked to look at the place of origin of church members and what this means in terms of diversity within the community, and how the government project at Hanford and the jobs it offered contributed to a demographic shift in the Pacific Northwest.

Figure 12: Using and interpreting oral history
Figure 12: Using & interpreting oral history.

In another tutorial, using and interpreting oral history interviews, users are guided to examine a series of interviews, both aural and written excerpts, with Mexican Americans of the Snake River Valley of Idaho. Users return to the tutorial to evaluate the differences between oral and written forms of the interviews.

Figure 13: Interpreting oral history
Figure 13: Interpreting oral history.

Through the process of evaluating a series of oral interviews, users learn more general rules of historical interpretation. In this case, they explore the theme of cultural traditions and determine what connections and conclusions, if any, can be made about the origin, importance, and persistence of some of these traditions in various communities; and, to interpret the dynamics of the interview as a creation by two people at a particular time and place.

Figure 14: Lesson plans for teachers
Figure 14: Lesson plans for teachers.

The tutorials we hope engage and teach users of all ages, while lesson plans are designed for educators. Teachers have increasingly recognized the value of using primary sources to teach critical thinking and the ways historical evidence is used in interpreting past events and people. The CRBEHA Web site assists in this effort by introducing new historical content, introducing primary sources, situating sources in appropriate historical context, and relating content and activities to Essential Learning Requirements for social studies curriculum in Oregon, Idaho, and Washington.

A series of structured lesson plans for teachers of grades 5–12 address four curriculum topics — the history of African Americans in the Columbia River Basin, immigration and migration, immigration and settlement, and ethnic culture and identity. Each lesson plan includes activities that take students directly to CRBEHA primary sources and encourage analysis and interpretation of those sources. For example, in one activity students read and critically analyze two oral history interviews and then evaluate the photographs of early African American settlers in the region. Following these activities, students then examine two additional sources of their choosing.

Last year in a teacher focus group created to evaluate the effectiveness of the Web site, one teacher remarked:

"I learned what a great resource this site is for me and my students. It reinforced my desire to use more primary documents in the classroom ... . Something that I get frustrated with [in teaching] is the lack of textbook information about minorities in the Northwest. The books just don’t tell their stories. This information is hard to find in print. This site allows me to have my students become historians and study the experience of [ethnic groups] first hand."

Focus group members reported that the site not only allowed students to dig deeper into history, but also gave teachers a meaningful way to introduce discussion about diversity issues within a classroom.


Discussion board

Figure 15: Discussion Forum
Figure 15: Discussion forum.

Finally, the "Discussion forum" module of the site is the least realized section, and it represents the most challenging in terms of how educators, librarians, and museum professionals can engage users in the "stuff" that makes history. We had hoped this interactive forum would provide teachers, students, and the general public a place to talk about discoveries made or dilemmas posed by items in the archive. We wanted to launch stimulating discussions about various aspects of ethnic history, including ethnic identities and race relations, work and labor, immigration and migration, discrimination and civil rights, and family life, religion, and social customs. Ideally, this could be an online humanities program, a place for scholars and the general public to interact and create a community of learners, and a place where members of various ethnic groups might share their stories, information, and recollections. Employing a WSU–developed threaded discussion software program, the forum encourages discussions whereby participants can respond to each otherís comments in a hierarchical or layered manner.

The challenges for creating and maintaining a lively discussion board are twofold. First, a public discussion board requires vigilance and time–consuming attention to the threat of hackers. Second, since we first conceptualized this project, the numbers of digital archives and educational sites have mushroomed, and we have found it difficult to attract the general public to "engage" in conversation via the Web site. As museum and library professionals we all dream of attracting this amorphous public to our institutions and sites, and perhaps in this age of blogging, we will begin to attract larger numbers of people to the discussion forum to explore the meaning of documents and artifacts.

Figure 16: Discussion forum categories
Figure 16: Discussion forum categories.

We have found greatest success in using the discussion board with student and teacher groups, whom we have organized to use or introduce the site. Because of its accessible format and division by clear subject categories, teachers can and have used the discussion section with students who post observations and interpretations of the materials they encounter in the digital archive.

In working with K–12 teachers in southwest Washington the past few years, especially in conjunction with a DOE Teaching American History grant project with Educational Service District 112 and WSUV, we have discovered that teachers and students are sometimes reluctant to use digital collections. Yet younger students embrace technology, and the medium provides another tool for teaching literacy, critical thinking, and other skills. At WSUV, located in a region of the state that has traditionally been underserved by higher education, we emphasize technological literacy among faculty and students, hoping this will begin to make a difference in the wider area.

To assist in this endeavor, Laurie Mercier has begun to emphasize the use of digital primary sources with the pre–service teachers — undergraduates who plan to enter K–8 or 6–12 certification programs — that she teaches. One of her classes, "Pacific Northwest History," is required of all teachers in Washington state, and she has made the CRBEHA Web site the centerpiece of the course. Demonstrating the flexibility of the site, she uses the archive with her own internal discussion board program, a university software program "Bridge," which allows for integration of the archive with other course materials and additional digital archives. Each week students work on various projects that employ CRBEHA and other online sources, participate in threaded discussions about the sources they examine, and through this process they themselves learn how to teach with digital sources. Students who do not plan to teach learn about the value of historical sources and the institutions that preserve and interpret them.

As educators, we are thrilled when learners of all ages discover someone else’s words from another era or a photograph that opens up new worlds of understanding. For example, last month Mercier had a class of undergraduates selecting items from the CRBEHA database to provide some interpretations of what they saw, and their observations were fascinating. One student who looked at about 40 images of Chinese immigrants noted that those portrayed before the 1880s exclusion acts were often as workers, contributing essential activities, while those photographs taken later tended to focus on more negative stereotypes, such as men in opium dens. As so often happens when we turn students and teachers loose with primary sources, they impress us with their insights and facility for understanding.

Including discussion forums or other tools for engagement on our sites will strengthen the teaching and learning of history. One final example, from an undergraduate studentís comment to another student whom she takes issue with over the matter of interpretation of the same document, reveals how digital sources can teach critical thinking and the subjectivity of interpretation:

"I read the same document as you. Remember how the author stated that there was no real prejudice surrounding ethnic groups? Do you really believe that? After all, it was 1930, Americans weren’t really happy to have immigrants coming into the country and taking their jobs and speaking different languages. I think the Asians especially experienced racial injustice. And the author even describes a black man being denied land. Maybe this document is painting a rosier picture than what actually existed."

Although we do not yet have data from our project that suggests that this digital archive has increased use of area libraries, museums, and historical societies, we are convinced from our experiences working with teachers and undergraduates each semester, that their introduction to the interpretation of primary sources and the practice of the historianís craft does motivate them to learn more from libraries and museums — electronically if not at the actual institution. End of article


About the authors

Laurie Mercier is Associate Professor of History at Washington State University Vancouver, has directed public history projects, and is the author of numerous publications about women’s, labor, and oral history, including Anaconda: Labor, community, and culture in Montana’s smelter city (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001).

Leslie Wykoff is the Director of Information Services at Washington State University Vancouver, is a member of the WSU library faculty, and does research in the field of integrated information services. She is former medical librarian at Oregon Health Sciences University.



Carl Smith, 1998. "Can you do serious history on the Web?" AHA Perspectives, volume 36 (February), p. 5 and at http://chnm.gmu.edu/resources/essays/serioushistory.php, accessed 30 May 2005.

Editorial history

Paper received 4 April 2005; accepted 3 May 2005.HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, Laurie Mercier and Leslie Wykoff

Engaging the public with digital primary sources: A tri–state online history database and learning center by Laurie Mercier and Leslie Wykoff
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 6 - 6 June 2005

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

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