Publication Date

February 1, 2006

In his 1999 article "No Computer Can Hold the Past," historian and then president of the American Historical Association Robert Darnton imagined a future conversation with students about their research methods transpiring along the following lines:

"Where do you find history?" I imagine asking students of the future. "On the Web," they answer. "How do you get at it?" "By surfing." "What method will you use to write your paper?" "Access, download, hyperlink, and printout."1

Today Darnton's imagined consultation not only frequently occurs between students and history professors, but also takes place as librarians assist students searching for materials to fulfill their assignments. Like historians and other educators, academic librarians have invested much time and research into finding instructional solutions to problems created by ill-conceived (or often nonexistent) student research practices that are manifested at reference desks and in classrooms. Our collective concern about the limited skill sets students frequently demonstrate when approaching a situation where they must identify, locate, retrieve, evaluate, and ethically use and document information has developed into the burgeoning field of study called information literacy.

During the past decade, the services and collections of research libraries, "the laboratory of the historian," where both undergraduates and "historians should have easy access to the books, journals, databases, computer stations, microform readers, and similar tools that are essential for historical research," have vastly changed due to the growth of the Internet and the exponential growth in access to varying sources of information.2 However, the skills and experience needed to navigate these newly enriched library collections, both virtual and physical, appear to be diminishing among both novice and advanced researchers. Moreover, the time students spend on accessing information to complete research papers and assignments, appears to be decreasing while instances of plagiarism seem to be increasing. How should librarians and faculty deal with the challenges posed by these developments? A session at the 2005 annual meeting of the American Library Association in Chicago was devoted to a discussion of this important question—and of possible responses—from the perspective of the discipline of history, and with an emphasis on primary resource materials. The panelists (a historian, a museum educator, and a librarian) focused on the instructional challenges and opportunities presented by the digitized presentation of primary sources in the current wave of technological change in museum, archival, and library collections. The purpose of this essay is to recapitulate and expand upon the remarks that I made as the librarian participating in this panel and the discussion that followed.

Where Students Find History

Research on information-seeking behavior within the discipline of history has long focused on the practices of historians and recently examined the methods employed by graduate students. However, little attention has been paid to how undergraduates typically utilize information resources to complete historical research projects. Directives calling for an increased emphasis on primary-source research in the study of history are evident from the educational literature focusing on K–12 and postsecondary history education. Nevertheless, the fact remains that very few history majors actually work with unpublished or published primary source materials until their senior year of undergraduate studies or graduate school. In addition, many students entering college not only do not know how to locate a primary source document; they are often also unaware even of what a primary source is within the field of history. Ironically, in the midst of this confusion, academic libraries are increasing their collections of digitized primary resource collections—whether they are purchased bundled packages from database vendors (such as the U.S. Congressional Serial Set or Historical Newspaper Collections) or home-grown projects providing online finding aids and/or digitized access to the treasures held within a library's special collections. So what we are left with are many resources both physical and virtual that are available, but are not tapped by undergraduates studying history. This disconnect between students, resources, and curriculum calls for an infusion of instruction and assignments that can help to develop information literacy. Examples of powerful collaborative projects between librarians, archivists, teaching faculty, and graduate students, like the collaborative work on the course offering entitled "The Practice of History" at the University of California at Berkeley, show the value of connecting primary sources and undergraduates.3

Realizing that many students do not know how to properly find and use primary source material, and do not understand how primary sources feed into secondary source materials and publications, librarians and faculty at California State University at Northridge have collaborated to enhance the undergraduate and graduate learning experience with information literacy enrichment. The focus on both undergraduate and graduate students comes from our recognition of the high numbers of history majors who become K–12 history teachers by completing the subject specialization teaching credential. The instruction provided at targeted points in the department's curriculum provides students and future teachers with greater exposure to primary source materials and practical examples of how historical research is conducted. The History Department at California State University at Northridge continues to offer both undergraduate and graduate students various opportunities to work with primary sources both within and outside the university in an effort to ensure that students gain practical experience and knowledge of how to work with historical information.

All three of the panelists who spoke at the Chicago meeting contended that it is critical to train the future teachers who will present history to future generations of students. Suggestions for collaboration included introducing students to primary source material held in university archival and special collections, working with museum educators to promote usage of exhibits and educational resources for K–12 teachers, and promoting the usage of recently acquired primary resource material in both print and digitized formats. The key to training students to critically understand historical research methods is to incorporate primary resource materials into their typically overindulgent diet of secondary source research and thereby build their "document-level literacy" skills of sourcing, corroboration, and contextualization.4 Looking back at the 2000 statement, “‘Best Practices’: Encouraging Research Excellence in Postsecondary History Education,” it is clear that faculty and librarians must continue to collaborate on creating assignments that introduce and develop the idea that libraries are “the laboratories of historians,” and thus promote the concept and practices that the document seeks to encourages thus:

Research in primary sources for students of history is equivalent to "lab work" for students in the sciences. Institutional support and funding should be available to allow historians to bring research into the classroom. This includes "smart classrooms" with sophisticated audiovisual equipment, as well as provision for student access to primary source materials, whether as physical artifacts located in nearby repositories, printed reproductions in the library, or digital forms available over the Internet.5

Academic librarians across the country will be eager to work with history faculty to introduce students to the growing resources of libraries. There certainly will be challenges and costs that may impede collaboration such as lack of time; wide-ranging curriculum needs; varying expectations of faculty, librarians, and students; and limitations in collections and resources due to cost. However, the opportunities and advantages that collaboration creates far outweigh most negative costs. Such collaboration increases student interactions with teaching faculty, librarians, libraries, scholarly materials and resources; improves student papers; increases the visibility of often under utilized primary source collections; and through assessment of collaborative efforts, yields valuable information on how to improve future student learning.

It would be somewhat shortsighted to think that improving student research skills and creating environments that increase information literacy skills is a losing battle against the popularity of Google and other Internet search engines. If we are to educate future historians and history teachers who can critically converse with texts, both primary and secondary, we must introduce students studying history to the sources at every opportunity both within and outside the classroom through collaborative partnerships that make access to materials engaging and seamless. Discussions following our presentations at Chicago clearly suggest that there is a real need to immerse students in the scholarly resources found within the walls and virtual environments of academic library collections. The key for teachers and librarians is to move in directions that promote and provide access to student resources where student learning can occur. We typically now find ourselves dealing with "digital natives"—students who have grown up surrounded by technology and therefore expect to learn and conduct research through digitized sources. Moreover, these students have a common perception and understandable confidence in the notion that everything they need to conduct and complete an assignment can be found online through freely available Internet resources. Until we show them contrary evidence—through demonstrations based on both print and digitized collections that our universities have secured access to through library collection development efforts—they will continue to rely on the inferior tools and resources that have hitherto offered them "success" in locating and using "relevant" resources in the past.

— is an academic librarian at California State University Northridge. She earned her BA in history from the University of California at Santa Barbara in 1994 and her MA in history and MLIS from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1998. She has recently published articles inReference Services Review, The Reference Librarian, and College and Research Library News.


1. Robert Darnton, “No Computer Holds the Past,” The New York Times, June 12, 1999, A 15.

2. “'Best Practices': Encouraging Research Excellence in Postsecondary History Education,” Perspectives Online, October 2000, accessed August 16, 2005.

3. David Farrell, “Students Practice History in Bancroft,” Bancroftiana 124 (spring 2004). Accessed August 16, 2005.

4. Anne M. Britt and Cindy Aglinskas, “Improving Students’ Ability to Identify and Use Source Information,” Cognition and Instruction, 20:4 (2002), 385–522.

5. “'Best Practices’: Encouraging Research Excellence in Postsecondary History Education.” Perspectives Online, October 2000, accessed August 16, 2005.

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