| By Megan Graewingholt, Social Sciences & Government Documents Librarian at California State University, Fullerton – Pollak Library |
The one-year mark of the attack on the U.S. Capitol is a milestone that’s an important reminder of the critical role primary sources play in helping us understand historical events.
As Social Sciences and Government Documents Librarian at CSU Fullerton’s Pollak Library, I wear many hats—including serving as library liaison to our history, American studies, and political science departments. I help guide student inquiry during library instruction, finding connections and exploring evidence through our collection of primary and secondary sources.
More often than not, when students come to the library seeking answers (or context), my recommendations come in the form of primary source materials, which are the evidence of history. They provide insight into the lived experiences of past events through the firsthand accounts and artifacts of everyday life. To truly understand, for lack of a better word, unprecedented events, students would be well-advised to start at the source.
Considering the Facts
In a recent congressional hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, former Trump administration officials testified for the first time regarding the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Amidst the sharp exchanges, two different versions of history emerged: one in which rioters breached the Capitol, leaving destruction in their wake, and another, where insurrectionists were the victims. As reported by Roll Call:
“It is not the truth to say there was no insurrection. The mob did breach the Senate floor shortly after Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding, was evacuated from the chamber. members of Congress, staffers, journalists, and others in the building for the counting of the Electoral College votes were in fact in imminent danger.”
While tumultuous, this scenario is not unique. Academics often interpret contentious accounts of historical events. When we explore primary sources from the past, we discover that the items preserved during these events can offer critical insights. Following the Capitol insurrection, items such as flags, banners, and other objects were immediately selected to be preserved as historical artifacts in a national archive. These serve as evidence for what happened that day and are pieces of a much bigger puzzle.
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.
To learn more about Gale Primary Sources and archives like Political Extremism and Radicalism, visit: https://www.gale.com/primary-sources
About the Author
Megan Graewingholt is the Social Sciences & Government Documents Librarian at California State University, Fullerton’s Pollak Library where she provides library instruction and reference support in the Social Sciences and for courses in American Studies, Political Science and American History.