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A New World of Primary Sources

by Michael Taylor on 2017-02-10T13:15:00-07:00 in Archives, CSWR, Library, American Studies, History

Do you want your students to get a taste of what it's like to work with primary sources? That's what twenty students in Taylor Spence's "Doing Early American History" did this week during a visit to UNM's Center for Southwest Research & Special Collections.

In addition to gaining a knowledge of colonial America, Spence wants students in his course to learn how to conduct primary source research. Michael Taylor, Public Services Librarian, gave an introduction to the library's print and digital resources and also developed an in-class exercise that paired groups of students with original sources, dating from the sixteenth to the early nineteenth century, held in Special Collections.

The sources included a copy of Richard Hakluyt's Principal Navigations (1599-1600), an anthology of English travel accounts published seven years before the founding of Jamestown. Students also explored an important travel anthology by Giovanni Ramusio, published in 1556, which contains the first map specifically devoted to what became New England and Canada, as well as a view of the Indian village of Hochelaga, first described by Jacques Cartier. Other sources included a manuscript from the Quaker Collection, two eighteenth-century maps of North America, a collection of Indian captivity narratives, and a 1699 English edition of Bartolomé de las Casas' Destruction of the Indies.

Spence's students not only became familiar with the basic types of sources that scholars use to study the early history of North America, but also experienced the joys and difficulties of working with original materials from this time period, such as difficult handwriting, antiquated language and spelling, and the need to think independently of the library catalog when searching for some types of information. For example, one group of students learned that early American newspapers are often rich in information on the history of women and Native Americans, but that a catalog search on these topics would not locate primary sources like the Columbian Centinel or The Weekly Museum, two American newspapers published in the 1790s now held in UNM's Special Collections.

The students will be using the library to write a 15-20 page paper and develop an oral presentation on one primary source from their research.  

To view the document analysis worksheets for the twelve sources that the students used, please see the Instruction page on the Special Collections website. Interested in developing similar worksheets for your class? Contact Michael Taylor at to set up a consultation. We are happy to help!


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