Do You See What I See? Document Analysis Using Special Collections Sources

Faculty are often familiar with information literacy and the skills students need in order to effectively identify, evaluate and use information from a variety of sources. Archivists and special collections librarians use a framework for “artifactual literacy​” and focus on specialized sources that don’t often come neatly packaged with the same indicators of quality students are taught for other library materials (such as refereed journals, databases with subject-specific content, authoritative internet resources, or primary sources transcribed and edited). In the Special Collections and Archives classroom, students encounter the materials directly, without mediation by an editor or computer screen. Students learn to recognize pieces of evidence and answer the classic questions of information literacy (reliability, validity, accuracy, authority, timeliness, bias, context of creation, etc.) for themselves, with materials that might be wholly unfamiliar to students born in the 1990s (such as handwritten script, black paper scrapbooks, obsolete technology and print formats, non-standard books, etc.).

Special Collections and Archives promotes the development of artifactual literacy through direct, course-specific instruction and also by providing a laboratory experience for students to investigate, test and develop these skills during class sessions or on their own in the reading room. This year, DePaul Special Collections and Archives is assessing the impact of instruction on artifactual literacy by partnering with History faculty teaching the 298 and 299 sequence to assess students’ document analysis skills.

To ground this assessment, we turned first to the Library’s Learning Outcomes, articulated in 2013, and then to the History Department’s Learning Outcomes, and found common ground in the Library’s outcome to Analyze and Evaluate (“Students will be able to articulate essential attributes of different information sources and apply critical thinking in order to determine the reliability, applicability, and responsible use of the resource”) and the History Department’s Outcome #2 to “identify, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize primary and secondary source evidence.”  Our initial assessment project is to provide students with a high quality facsimile of a document held in our Special Collections and a series of written prompts at the beginning of the class session (pre-test) and a different high quality facsimile of a document along with a series of written prompts at the end of the session (post-test).

An analytic trait rubric was designed to rate students’ abilities, and to measure whether students are better able to analyze a primary source after class instruction and hands-on practice. Preliminary analysis shows that the pre-and post-test scores may be of less interest than the free-text answers provided by the students, and that qualitative analysis of the type of evidence they notice and the frequency of certain answers will help us to refine and improve our instruction.

Will they (students) learn see what we (seasoned professionals) see?

DePaul Special Collections and Archives provided 66 instruction sessions during the 2013-2014 academic year, working with just over 1,100 students from a variety of disciplines. Please contact Special Collections and Archives for more information about our instruction program, or visit us in the John T. Richardson Library, Room 314.

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