Claire O'Neill
Claire O'Neill
Library Services, Wiley

In order to effectively understand and respond to the current challenges we face as a modern society, it’s critical that researchers have access to the holistic scholarly record – one that goes beyond an article or its conclusions – encouraging deeper understanding or even reinterpretation of findings through the lens of historical context.



At this year’s Charleston Conference, we brought together a panel of library leaders from a diverse group of institutions to share strategic insights on acquiring primary source collections and offer best practices to promote information literacy, enrich classroom instruction, and bolster research outcomes.


“There is a broad appeal that expands beyond the history department to all levels of research.”


As the Librarian for History, History of Science and African Studies at Princeton University, Alain St. Pierre is no stranger to the value of historical context in education and learning. As part of his collection strategy, he has invested in a range of primary and secondary materials to support relevant subject areas, including reference works, rare books and manuscripts, microfilm and microfiche, and digitized print and archival sources like Wiley Digital Archives.


Significant value is derived from the interdisciplinarity of primary source collections in particular, as they “don’t just apply to undergraduate researchers studying history,” but rather to all levels of research. From freshman writing seminars and senior theses to dissertations and research papers, graduate students and faculty researchers also have a “voracious appetite for primary sources in all formats.”


“Primary sources took us from show-and-tell to hands-on learning.”


Maureen Maryanski, Education and Outreach Librarian at Indiana University’s Lilly Library, added a unique perspective to the conversation as the coordinator of classes and tours that visit the rare books area of her library.


Providing tangible “evidence of lives lived,” primary sources are a vital component of original research across many disciplines at IU, helping researchers develop critical thinking skills, find, interpret, evaluate and ethically use items, and promote active, engaged inquiry-based learning.


Maryanski places immense value on the shift towards experiential learning that is a result of exposure to “hands-on” original sources, as one student described being “struck by the humanness of the documents” after visiting the Lilly Library’s special collection. It’s this visceral connection to original materials that opens the door for students and researchers to achieve a deeper, more personal understanding of their research topics and approach learning through a new lens.


When it comes to evaluating primary sources, it’s important not to think about them in isolation.”


Despite the clear value of primary source materials in research, the suggestion isn’t that researchers abandon all other sources, but rather that they learn how to balance them. Sarah Horowitz, Curator of Rare Books and Manuscripts and Head of Quaker and Special Collections at Haverford College, reflected on the need to integrate the use of primary sources with other scholarly materials.


“Critical engagement and context are important no matter how you’re working with primary sources,” Horowitz stressed, “and both primary and secondary sources need to be evaluated in a multitude of ways.”


As print primary source collections are augmented by their newly digitized counterparts, “it’s important,” Horowitz notes, “to interrogate the format, to ask why things were included in an archive collection in the first place,” and “to see the collection as a whole.”


The digitization of physical collections from across the globe certainly allows scholars to discover, search and explore content previously unknown or inaccessible, but it also offers a comprehensive look at the historical context and materiality.


In addition, secondary sources provide useful facts surrounding historical events and offer existing interpretations through published literature.


“It’s important to collect materials for the future, not just for right now”


Of course, building and marketing a robust collection of primary source materials comes with an array of challenges. First, there is pressure to maintain historical strengths and collect exhaustively in select fields across multiple formats – which can be costly and difficult to find.


Secondly, librarians are also faced with the challenge of foresight. When it comes to meeting research needs at the highest level, “we need to buy it before the researchers even know they need it,” explains St. Pierre.


Furthermore, it’s incumbent on the librarian to not only invest in these original collections, but to also ensure their proper use and engagement in classroom and research activities.


So where to start? Panelists strongly emphasized collaboration, as building relationships with new and existing faculty is imperative to both acquiring the right collections and ensuring successful learning outcomes. Consulting with researchers directly is also paramount in order to support use of archive finding aids and help identify the print and digital collections available.


To learn more about the value of primary sources and discover newly digitized archive collections, visit


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