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Notes from the October 28th Webinar: Accessing the Past

November 1st, 2010 No comments

The digitizing of primary source material is becoming an important step forward in the teaching and learning of history. The ability of students to access and use high quality images of primary sources that once were confined to archives, museums, libraries and historical society’s shelves means that new learning and understanding of the past is feasible at an unprecedented level. In addition, the tools available to students to create their own digital copies of primary sources adds a dimension of ownership to the creation of history that can only be imagined at this point. However, as educators, we must ensure that this process and action is ongoing, rigorous and meaningful.

We should be encouraging our students to explore and add to current archives of material available to them. Some of the online collections that were examined in the webinar included the Maine State Archives Civil War Sesquicentennial Collection, the Maine Memory Network and the Library of Congress Flickr Collection of historic images. These three collections give a varied picture of how primary source materials are being presented to the public, and really only hint at the kinds of material available. To deepen this examination, students could be directed to search YouTube for primary source video, such as news broadcasts and amateur footage of events, and the Internet Archive for audio recordings.

The creation of digital copies of primary source material using student laptops is surprisingly simple, with the addition of a scanner or a digital camera that can create high resolution images. Scanners that can create images of 800 pixels per inch are now very affordable for most department budgets, and can be used by many to create an impressive library of digital images of documents, photographic prints and other material on a page, such as maps, plans and newspaper articles.
On the MLTI laptops, the application Image Capture makes the process getting a scanner to work very easy. For most scanners, it is a straightforward ‘plug and play’, and the ability to work with the images pre-scan is taken care of right in the application. Adjusting resolution, size of the image created, naming and location the image will be placed on the machine is now a matter of a few clicks.

Scanning guidelines for archival material can be found on the Maine Memory Network site.

Once a digital copy has been created, it is important to name the material correctly. This can be for the purposes of retrieval if the copies are added to a database, for both the creator and another user. If standard naming conventions are followed, it will make it more useful when sharing the material for anyone to locate and understand the material. The Maine State Archives have provided a naming convention for files containing digital copies, and can be found here.

Using digital tools to create meaning and understanding from primary source materials can occur in many ways. Using Comic Life to ‘unpack’ an image is a great entry point for many students: the whole image of the material can be placed in the center of a page, and cutaway focus images of the detail can then be added to the page, with text bubbles providing commentary on the detail. iMovie can be used to generate a Ken Burns style documentary (the default setting for still images in iMovie is the Ken Burns effect). Using Google Earth to locate the source material’s origin or current archive, through adding placemarks to the map, is a powerful way to build relationships to the material through geography. Building online collections, through blogs and wikis, and also through Flickr sets, provides the opportunity for the wider world to comment on the material, thus leading to new perspectives and new understanding around documents that were perhaps previously only available to a few.

The connections to the past that can be created through students using primary source material are important for the future of history and historical learning. By creating and gaining access to primary source material that before the arrival of the digital age was restricted, we can hope to build a new story of our past, and thereby gain a new understanding of who we are today.