Interacting with History: Teaching with Primary Sources ed. by Katharine Lehman
George Santayana’s widely employed aphorism, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” implies that history functions (or can function) as a signpost to a better future. Historians remain wary of such claims. Why do we study history if not to prevent a repetition of past mistakes? The obvious answer: History is fun! We love to tell stories, or at least to hear and read them. Put differently, people not only enjoy but also are good at recognizing patterns in random and incomplete data. The ancients made sense of the heavens by creating asterisms and constellations from the stars scattered across the sky. Each perceived shape derived from myths specific to a culture, and yet the need to find patterns in the stars appears to have been universal. The idea that history repeats likewise constitutes a form of pattern recognition. It, too, arose independently in many Western and non-Western contexts. Historians craft narratives about the past by scrupulously identifying patterns in the surviving primary source record, developing over time a deep appreciation for the archive.
What of beginning history students? When should emergent intellects be exposed to primary sources so that they, too, can begin to form their own patterns? The authors of Interacting with History: Teaching with Primary Sources demonstrate definitively that waiting until college or even high school will not do. Indeed, editor and coauthor Katharine Lehman describes in chapter 4 an effective primary source learning activity for kindergarteners. Though aimed primarily at K-12 teachers and [End Page 552] librarians, Interacting with History is also relevant to undergraduate education. On one level, it functions as a simple introduction to the Library of Congress’s digitized exhibitions, collections, and discovery platforms (such as Exploring the Early Americas, With Malice Toward None, and American Memory, respectively). Barbara Stripling, assistant professor of information studies at Syracuse University, prefigures a second, higher goal in her introduction. Students, she writes, through exposure to primary sources are “drawn to make inferences,” and, in turn, to “form their own conclusions based on the evidence they have collected and interpreted.” (p. ix)
The book is chock-full of concrete activities, hints, tips, and other advice for K-12 teachers who wish to expose their students to primary sources. See, for instance, Sara Suiter’s discussion of the outstanding Teaching with the Library of Congress blog (http://blogs.loc.gov/teachers) in chapter 2. The “action lessons” compiled by Lehman in chapter 4 from participants in the 2011 Library of Congress Summer Institute should not be missed. I found the teachers’ experiences inspirational and picked up several tips in working with primary sources for my own teaching. Interacting with History is amply illustrated with images of objects selected from the library’s vast collections. I nevertheless found screen captures of the collections’ websites difficult to see. Sidebars or callout boxes highlight important URLs for lesson plans, activities, webcasts, maps, and other resources.
Interacting with History is not available as an e-book. The important content presented in each of the book’s five chapters might have reached even more K-12 teachers if available as discrete articles published in, say, the Library of Congress’s own open source e-periodical titled The Teaching with Primary Sources Journal (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/tps/journal/index.html). Better still, the Library of Congress could have made the chapters available as downloadable pdfs from the Teaching with Primary Sources website. A free preview that includes both the full introduction and chapter 1, however, can be found and downloaded from the online ALA (American Library Association) Store. As a guide to teaching with primary sources, college-level librarians and instructors will prefer Jenny Presnell’s The Information-Literate Historian (New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd ed., 2013) to the book under review. I also recommend the “From Problems to Sources” chapter in the aging but still excellent Craft of Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2nd ed., 2003) over Interacting with History for the college level.
Historians complicate the past. Their work provides, or can provide—for those willing to play the game—an antidote to stale narratives and simple interpretations based on faulty or incomplete assumptions. “Students,” according to Lehman, “must use prior knowledge and work with multiple primary sources to find [their own] patterns.” (p. 39) Early exposure to primary sources is therefore critically important. Interacting with History will help K-12 teachers achieve this laudable goal. After all, while the Greeks associated the Pleiades star cluster with the seven divine sisters, the Aztecs, in contrast, saw the Marketplace, and the Maya construed the same stars as the Rattlesnake’s Tail. Our future pattern recognizers, our future historians, should be as diverse as the systems invented to make sense of the stars in the sky. [End Page 553]
College of New Jersey
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