Pegasus Librarian - Iris Jastram

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Reimagining Primary Source Searching to Help Dismantle Institutional Racism

Mon, 06/29/2020 - 10:49am
Bundle of Newspaper Lot from Pikrepo

Primary source searching is hard. It has always been hard. First there was the problem of extremely limited access (unless you had travel funding and archives access). Then, after the digitization boom, there’s the new problem of helping students understand that they can’t search for topics or ideas; they have to search for concrete things from the source description or from the text already in the source. “Postcard” will likely be in the metadata about a postcard, but “depicting domesticity in the 18th century” is just not part of the metadata as a general rule. I tell students that they have to search for people, places, or things, not topics. And even then it won’t be comprehensive. And there’s literally no way to search for “paintings by women” or “novels by Black people.” That’s just not how the systems are set up, I say, over and over and over. You have to literally type in the letters-in-a-row that the original authors typed, or you have to know the name of the creator, I explain, over and over and over. If you want to find out how x group is referenced in newspapers, you have to OR together all the names and words that might have been associated with that group, I instruct, over and over and over.

And therein lies the rub. I am no longer willing to inflict on my students the trauma – the violence – of ORing together all the epithets that have been used in newspapers and legislation and editorial cartoons and broadsides to refer to minority groups. It’s one thing to be presented with these terms once you’ve gained access to a historical document. It’s quite another to have to use your imagination, creativity, and research skills to come up with these terms. And then after all that you have to actively recreate these epithets by typing these terms into a search box?? All neatly strung together with your fancy boolean operators?? No. Doing that myself is painful. Requiring students to do that in order to gain access to the historical record is horrible.

Going through and improving the metadata in our digital collections is going to be hard, expensive, and time consuming. The historic record is quite large, after all. But we and our vendors must do this work. It’s our ethical, moral, and social responsibility, and the technology exists to make it possible. We’ve been applying subject metadata to secondary and tertiary sources for years — for decades. And especially now that curricula have shifted toward teaching from primary sources more and more, we can’t hide behind the convenient excuse that “this is just the price you pay for studying history.” No. This is not a price we should have to pay. This is certainly not the price that my Black, Indigenous, LGBTQ, Latinx, and other historically marginalized students should have to pay in order to study history and culture.

Categories: Citizens