To truly understand, for lack of a better word, unprecedented events, students would be well-advised to start with primary sources

U.S. Capitol riot one year later: How primary sources help students understand extremism


To truly understand, for lack of a better word, unprecedented events, students would be well-advised to start with primary sources

By exploring multiple primary sources in conversation, students expand their worldview and consider multiple ways of thinking. Examining an event or issue from varying vantage points can strengthen students’ ability to navigate important decisions in their learning and in life.

Connecting the past to the present

When I work with students using archival material, I always make sure they understand the meaning of the word “ephemeral,” since this is a great way to describe these resources. It means lasting a very short time, fleeting, short-lived, momentary.

One of the library’s collections that stands out as an example of this concept is Political Extremism and Radicalism: Far-Right and Left Political Groups in the U.S., Europe, and Australia in the Twentieth Century, a digital archive of primary sources published by Gale. The sheer existence of these materials is a golden opportunity for historians, not only due to the temporary nature of their format but in light of the nature of the organizations themselves.

Connecting historical material, like political ephemera, to its contemporary counterpart is one way I try to make history accessible for students. For example, during library instruction sessions, I might compare pamphlets used to spread ideas and recruit members to how individuals use social media channels today. Putting the purpose of these materials in context is important in understanding their meaning and influence. It also emphasizes how lucky scholars are to have them accessible for research.

Through this and other primary source collections, students get a glimpse into the history and development of radical organizations and extreme movements. The collection includes organizational documents, propaganda, member literature, and various ephemera that provide unique insights into the beliefs and activities of political movements. Particularly for tight-lipped extremist movements like the Ku Klux Klan and the American Nazi Party, surviving internal documents like these are invaluable for research.

As materials in the collection demonstrate, forms of extremism and radicalism have significantly shaped mainstream political thinking as well as cultural norms over time. Present-day political battles around issues of social justice, civil rights, environmental justice, LGBTQ+ rights, and more can trace roots to the work of movements of the past. Likewise, the collection is evidence of the long history of extremist ideologies. Examining the history of these movements can illuminate lost or overlooked lessons and provide essential background for understanding radical activity today.

Thinking critically and analytically

Teaching with primary sources engages students in history at the micro-level. It allows them to see a snapshot in time and consider what individual voices teach us about the past.  They provide the raw materials for original research, as a bowl of fruit would for a still-life painter. The final product is what the student will interpret, connect, and create from the original source material.

By analyzing a photograph, a newspaper account, or a pamphlet from a rally, students experience examples of everyday actions that inform the historical record. In this way, exploring multiple sources not only adds crucial context but builds a conversation, more broadly, about how history is made.

Promoting the importance of critical thinking is not about teaching students what to think, but rather how to think, how to ask questions, and how to make connections. Higher-order cognitive skills are frequently requested by employers since they demonstrate problem-solving abilities and prepare individuals to tackle personal and professional challenges as citizens of the world.

Moreover, by instilling critical thinking in students, educators help groom individuals to become independent lifelong learners, contributing to a fundamental goal of the educational enterprise.

Recognizing the importance of accessibility

COVID-19 intensified an already growing trend among library users to prefer and request electronic formats. During lockdown especially, this growing demand drove home the criticality of being digitally connected. Like so many others, the pandemic disrupted library services, including physical access to the library building and the university’s archives and special collections reading room.

While virtual reading room appointments were provided and the library quickly resumed circulating material, many students actively requested online material. Understandably, many patrons did not want to travel to campus to pick up physical material unless absolutely necessary.

For courses that typically came to the library for instruction focused around locating primary sources and archival material, having digital collections available remotely to students made the transition to all-virtual learning significantly more seamless.

Despite the events of 2020, the need for preserved and accessible resources spans beyond the pandemic. It is not uncommon for researchers to visit archives, special collections, or academic institutions that are out-of-state to conduct research. Digital collections, on the other hand, allow students to access material that otherwise would have been out of their reach, in some cases across the nation or the globe. Digitized primary sources don’t just help researchers explore and understand topics like political extremism—they can remove significant barriers for many students. In this way, these essential collections engage and empower students to pursue their research wherever the source may reside.

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