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Intern Lesson: Who Knew Analyzing Primary Sources Could Be So Exciting?

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This is a guest post by Arline Troncoza, who worked this spring with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

As the end of my internship draws near and I look back at all I have learned, one thing sticks out: I have been surprised by how exciting analyzing primary sources can be. I watched as teachers at our workshops sat with images in front of them, and their facial expressions went from an initial blank stare to expressions of full engagement and wonder as they looked at every detail of an image to answer questions like: What is the image trying to convey? Why? Who created it? In groups, the teachers became excited students working together to analyze an image.

“Carrying-in” boy in Alexandria Glass Factory, Alexandria, Va. Works on day shift one week and night shift next week.

I saw this same response when two high school students were given this image to analyze. They, too, had the initial blank bored stare. When the image was paired with the Primary Source Analysis Tool, the students became engaged in the process and the more details they observed in the image, the more they wanted to know why. Why was this factory so dirty? Why were these young boys working in it? Who made this image? Why was this image created? The students came up with possible answers and most of their reflections about the images were accurate. Like the teachers at the workshops, observations about the image generated questions, and the more questions they produced, the more engaged they became.

A Woman Dropping Her Tea-cup in Horror upon Discovering the Monstrous Contents of a Magnified Drop of Thames Water Revealing the Impurity of London Drinking Water

I experienced this when I participated in the webinar Free Primary Sources from the World Digital Library. Glancing at this image – which has now become my favorite –  you may think that it is from a children’s book, but when you look closer you realize it is much more. During the webinar we considered questions like: What do you observe in the image? What do you wonder about this image? What kind of facial expression is on the woman’s face? Why do you think she is making that expression? The more ideas we came up with about this image, the more details we noticed. Through the process of observing, reflecting and questioning, all of us participating in the webinar formed ideas of why and for whom this image was made. We finally read the bibliographic description, and we discovered that our inferences were actually pretty accurate.

Primary sources can engage all groups from K-12 students, to college students and teachers. I have learned that an image is not just an illustration; through the process of analyzing so much can be learned. It is easy to give someone an image and let them learn about it by reading a caption, but it is much more memorable and to support them to digest every detail of the image and connect ideas to formulate their own interpretation first.



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