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University Libraries Receive Grant for Teaching with Primary Sources: An Interview with Keith Gorman, Head of the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives

Q: You have received a $19,876 Literacy and Lifelong Learning Grant from Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) funds administered by the State Library of North Carolina.  Can you tell us briefly what the project is about? 

GORMAN: This project represents our response to a perceived teacher need in the community.  There has been a shift in emphasis towards teaching with primary documents (letters, diaries, documents, photographs, etc.)..  New learning technology and new online digital collections makes this type of teaching possible, but it lacks the excitement of touching the real item.  In some cases, the digital copy may put some additional distance between the researcher and the actual item.  Students and teachers involved in this project will be able to see what’s in an archive.  Moreover, participants will be able to meet and work with UNCG subject experts.  These skilled professionals will offer a wonderful and unique perspective to specific primary sources as well as insight into archival research.

Q: When will the project begin?  

GORMAN: The project will begin in August 2015 with the hiring and training of 1-2 graduate students, but discussions with teacher partners began in spring 2015.  We are actively recruiting teachers to participate.. 

Q: This is not your first venture into collaboration with the state’s teachers.  Can you give us some background? 

GORMAN: No it isn’t.  We have a number of outreach efforts going with area schools.  Many of these efforts come out of the NC Literary Map project, for which we provided presentations and workshops at professional conferences and meetings around the area and state, created lesson plans, and did some classroom instruction.

Q: How are your school partners to be chosen? 

GORMAN: We will not choose them.  We have reached out to area middle school and high school teachers (Language Arts and History) through a survey to find out their interest in incorporating primary sources into their instruction.  We also asked them about whether they would be interested in working with UNCG archivists and librarians.  We had eighty teachers express interest.  We are offering10 classes per semester.  The teachers will be encouraged to sign up for class sessions.

Q: Why did you apply for this grant? Are there other sources of support?

GORMAN: It is a pilot project for our concept, and the LSTA monies administered by the State Library were available to encourage this kind of innovative approach.  The University Libraries are supportive of what we are doing with this project, and we are looking for additional funding from donors and foundations to sustain it.

Q: Who will benefit, and how?

GORMAN: I believe that both students and teachers will benefit.  Teachers, for example, can see how other subject experts teach with these materials at the university level, and also learn from on our demonstrations of working with primary documents.  I especially like the interactions between our subject specialists and the teachers.  I think it demonstrates how librarians can help them with instruction.  But, I also believe that students will gain new insight in how to conduct research in the digital age.

Q: Why is learning to use primary source material so important to students and to teachers?

GORMAN: It really builds on what the teachers are doing in the classroom, showing how critical thinking skills can help students to assess the primary sources that they are using.  I think it empowers students and prepares them for success in both high school and college.  We don’t have a set of expectations for student products.  That is up to the teachers and the needs and abilities of their students.  Teachers and students will choose subject matter, guided by the strengths of our particular collections.

Q: Going into the state’s schools with your training rather than offering it at the Library might be considered very different for a Library.  Why did you choose that approach?

GORMAN: While interested in teaching with primary sources, many teachers mentioned significant barriers to traveling to the UNCG campus.  They are struggling with limits on their time, resources, and convenient access to an archives..  Recognizing these significant barriers, we bring workshops and instruction directly to the schools where both the teachers and the students are.  I am still holding out hope that some teachers and students will be able to come to campus and have the experience of carrying out research at an academic library.

Q: How are you using technology with this project?

GORMAN:  It depends on the class and what the instructor wants.  We anticipate using a mix of online teaching technology – demonstrating some of our points online by showing students materials from our collections, the Library of Congress and the Digital Public Library, for example.  We will take some physical items to the school, and we may do some digital scanning on demand if the class wants to explore some collections we don’t yet have up online.

Q: Tell us about the type of student you hope to hire with these grant funds?

GORMAN:  Since they will be the ones actually going to the schools, we’ll be looking for graduate students with an interest in instruction or community outreach.  These could be students in library science, education, history, English, or public history.  The ideal candidate will have a great interest in research, history, and in engaging students.  They will need to have an active imagination and the ability to teach on the fly.  Moreover, they need to be comfortable with instructional technology.  They will also need to understand research and critical thinking, and how they affect writing.

Q: Anything else you want to tell us?

GORMAN:  I am excited about this project.  It gives us an opportunity to engage a range of students in the community and get to know teachers who do a wonderful job of teaching young people in the area, while giving an opportunity to point to UNCG resources.  This is a different type of classroom from the one we encounter at the University, and gives us a chance to engage students before they set off for this or another university.  As the master teacher who will train the graduate students, I look forward to mentoring some of our graduate students and providing them with a good experience as well.