On librarians and [historical] information literacy

Something I have struggled with as a history librarian and as a librarian generally is the eternal notion of “information literacy.” We librarians talk about this, about how to achieve this, about practical tools, about philosophies, about strategies to impart IL skills to students ad nauseum. In reaction, I have consciously dropped out of that conversation for a few years now. This is not to say that I am not interested in the issue. In fact, nothing has piqued nor sustained my professional interest to the same extent. But the conversations around IL have sufficiently burned me out that I have stepped out of the professional discourse on the subject.

But the conclusion I came to this morning is that my project is fundamentally about IL. It’s about historical IL, about documentary IL, but nonetheless, what I am trying to achieve and understand is how to encourage students and others to be more historically literate – in terms of being able to see and interpret a document whose origins are of another era.

Anyone who has visited this website previously will know that I have relied heavily on Google Books in compiling its content. As I sat down another day to add yet more links to yet more texts, I became distracted by a text of a different sort. A modern text! It’s Theory and resistance in education: towards a pedagogy for the opposition by By Henry A. Giroux (2001) and specifically chapter 6, “Literacy, ideology and the politics of schooling.” [distraction by Google Books is a real problem for me. But I love how it  emulates the now bygone tradition of getting lost in a bunch of library books sitting on the stacks]. Using Giroux’s model, I have begun the analysis of:

1) Assumptions

2) Practices

And how these play into existing configurations of:

a) knowledge

b) ideology

c) power

I have started to identify what we librarians typically do that is counterproductive to real information literacy if that concept is even achievable.

The Assumptions are:

– that IL exists and is achievable

– that library tools support learning and mastery of IL

-that librarians have context expertise in the area of IL

– that texts impart knowledge, which is two pronged: content (direct knowledge) and context (meta knowledge).

I personally have never internalized the first or second assumption above, but I do hope that the last one is true.

The Practices supporting these assumptions are:

– We collect, develop and present “appropriate” and pre-selected teaching tools, including: databases (indexes / library catalogs included) and other sources to students when requested by professor or TA. These collections and presentations are usually realized in conjunction with course goals or specific assignments so that they directly support and extend other course content.

– We impose on students a supposedly logical model regarding how to seek information and then interpret it.


At first glance, I would guess that most librarians would argue that we don’t have much or any role in propagating a “specific configuration of knowledge, ideology or power.” Most librarians I know would leave those political goals to the instructors of the courses in which they are guests and would not accept responsibility for any such activity. But if one examines 1) the presence of the librarian (authority figure? gate-keeper? controls collections and budgets) combined with 2) the content that is presented (premium & expensive data that must be used to justify its purchase) and 3) the methodology that we nearly always stick to (search the reference collection, then the catalogue, then the article databases or other specialized tools) and the anti-internet ideology (free can’t possibly be worth anything) and we actually have the formula presented by Giroux in his critique of “literacy” as a mechanistic skill, reduced to a simple technique.

I don’t have the answer to my question yet, “is documentary literacy possible?” and the follow-up, “well then, how?” Especially if answering this question requires me to formulate a philosophically oriented session focusing beyond the boiled down procedural skill based literacy we librarians have grown to know and love. There is the practical to consider: when I’m asked to show 75 students working on individual topics how to put together a bibliography relating to their topic in 60 minutes or less, I have to ask myself, is this possible and should I even attempt it?

As I continue to read Giroux and apply his and my critique to IL, some of this will become clearer. There are ways to achieve documentary literacy which may or may not involve librarians; ways that do not operationalize or reduce literacy to a set of skills. In my search for a solution I have begun by asking Giroux’s questions:  what counts as [documentary] literacy? what are the consequences (social, political, educational, etc…) of a reductionist approach to [information] literacy? rather than beginning with the assumptions listed above. For me, that’s a good start.

I also appreciated an assignment that was posted on the Early Modern Online Bibliography blog last week by Dave Mazella. Clearly the assignment speaks to the contextual and content / material knowledge that should be a goal in IL sessions. Taking the time to bring a whole class to the special collections and have students work with the historical documents is one way of broadening documentary literacy among students and surely avoids the pitfalls of the reductionist & instrumental approaches to research.

Is it enough?

I have been compiling my thoughts on the Oxford-produced database of correspondence Electronic Enlightenment in order to write a critical review of the collection for the Charleston Advisor.

As an aside, in case you didn’t realize it, Stanford University’s Visualization of the Republic of Letters project was based on the letters from Electronic Enlightenment (EE).

The letters in EE are extracted from modern critical editions (published by Oxford University Press and other scholarly / academic presses) and manually keyed into a database. Since EE is not based on original manuscripts, there are no digital images of the letters; only text.

Contrast the EE project to something like Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO) which offers only the digital image of the original manuscript, or a very early edition if available. There are no text files for readers to rely on; no help with the awkward fonts or various typographical errors.

Which type of database is more useful in the classroom? Does it depend on the classroom? Does it matter whether it’s literature being studied or history? Should we librarians and scholars press companies to offer both images and text, and what would be the cost? If I’m correct, the projects that are based on keyed-in text (such as the Women’s Writers Project based at Brown University) generally start out as scholarly projects funded by granting agencies. Eventually if the money dries up, they usually go subscription-based, assuming there is enough demand. EE is a little bit like that, although I’m not sure whether there was ever an initial grant. It was intended as a scholarly project. ECCO, on the other hand, I think was intended to fill in the collection gaps at universities with thin historical collections. Both have their uses, but is it enough to offer only images, or only text?


I recently joined SHARP-L (Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing List-serv) and am finding it so worthwhile. In a recent thread, a post-doctoral fellow at Ghent University in Belgium, Yuri Cowan, reflected on her recent experiences teaching 2nd year undergraduate students “Elements of material bibliography and print culture” at the University of Toronto. Her class, which consisted of 100 students (wow!) was given a final assignment consisting of a bibliographical description of a pre-1800 book accompanied by a reflective essay. One of the students “noted a mysterious stain on a page halfway through an eighteenth-century medical texts [sic], a stain which looked suspiciously like blood, and in her reflective essay she ventured that the book might actually have been referred to during a dissection or anatomy lesson.  Was she right?  Who knows?  and anyway that stain was certainly not part of the history of the book’s production.  Yet the fact of her seizing upon that mysterious stain shows that the inclusion of the history of reading and use, and of the social history of print culture, has real pedagogical value in the classroom, if only because it encourages attention to detail and a sense of the ways in which the material book is shaped not only by its making, but by its subsequent use and reuse.”

The value of joining this list-serv is already evident. The value and ways of using primary sources in the classroom are becoming clearer!

Primary documents

Since creating this blog and having some discussion with teachers here and elsewhere about the challenges of using primary documents in the classroom, I’ve begun a preliminary search for techniques or tools that might ease the discomfort that students have in approaching the primary source. The reaction to the sources in La pensée des lumières from a 3rd year philosophy course was “cool,” followed by “and what now?” I get that – it’s not obvious.

To this end, I found some worksheets (from the US National Archives) for documenting the attributes of various types of primary sources. I can see a worksheet being useful in having students think broadly about the source and documenting all of the components of it; not only those which have an obvious interest. Examples of other features might be typeface, personal notes written on the source, conflicting information in the source itself, misspellings, personal names who may or may not be researchable, etc…. the worksheets could also be used as a first step in a transcription project which uses a defined protocol such as the TEI.

All of the worksheets can be found here.


I am also really interested in the thematic organization of primary documents which can provide a structure for students. A good example on the history of electricity in the 18th and 19th centuries here.

TEI Assignment for history undergrads

I saw this innovative assignment using archival sources in the classroom whereby students collaborate on digital history projects…Kathryn Tomasek, Associate Professor of History at Wheaton College as part of the abstract to this poster session writes, “Pedagogically, transcription and coding projects expose students to both the physical experience of handling original primary sources in the archives and some basic practice using the underlying language of digital media. For teaching, collaborative contributions to the digital archive offer instructors opportunities to help students understand mediations that are intrinsic to the archival, research, and editorial processes. As students transcribe, code, and proofread documents, they learn about the nature of historical sources, and such lessons evoke theoretical questions about the nature and purposes of archives.” I can vouch for this assignment; last year, I attended the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Summer Institute for Humanities Data Curation and was assigned a similar exercise to learn TEI. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of undergraduate history curricula, but there it is! Definitely worth thinking about.