Introducing AM Explorer to students: a subject liaison perspective

In July 2020, AM hosted a webinar with two librarians whose institutions have successfully integrated AM Explorer into their library systems and services. Jeff Liszka, Department Liaison for Arts and Humanities at Trinity College, Connecticut, and Dr Hope Williard, Academic Subject Librarian at University of Lincoln, UK, shared their experiences with course integration, collection promotion, and building student confidence with primary sources available through AM Explorer.

A single platform for primary source provision to students

Both Trinity College and University of Lincoln have a growing emphasis on primary source provision for students. As a single point of access to millions of pages of digitised primary sources across more than a hundred different modules of content, an AM Explorer subscription was a key part of meeting that need. “There was a strong agreement and partnership between the library and the history department that we needed stronger provision of primary sources for students”, Hope said, “and AM can facilitate that in so many great ways.”

Because of the strong research interests in American history and gender and sexuality studies at Lincoln, it was challenging for the librarians to decide on one collection for perpetual purchase. “The subscription to AM Explorer suited our needs a lot better and presented much better value for money”, Hope explained. With the launch of a new history degree programme, Lincoln leaned on this productive partnership between the library and faculty teaching, bidding successfully for funds to enhance resource provision as part of the new degrees. In the future, the library will “keep a close eye on usage statistics to see if Evidence Based Acquisitions of particular collections is something to pursue further”, as perpetual purchase options are still seen as a desirable addition to complement the renewable subscription.

Jeff also emphasised a move towards experiential learning in course design, and acquisitions of primary sources forming a key part of this shift. “One of the focuses at Trinity is to support primary source research, especially in the Humanities.” With AM collections, Jeff mentioned that he has “always been impressed with the range of content as well as the depth and the diversity of content. AM covers many unique areas which don’t always benefit from coverage in other primary source databases – especially related to cultural history. The study of cultural and social history is very important at Trinity College. It’s a really important component of our history and American Studies programs, so the resources that AM provides are a real big help for that.”

Equal opportunities for access were also key considerations. “Our students are encouraged to work with primary sources and do archival work, but many of them have part-time jobs to fund their studies and living expenses and can’t afford the time or the cost of travelling to archives”, Hope explained. “Our university emphasises an ethos of no hidden costs for students, so our faculty are discouraged from asking students to buy books or from expecting students to pay for research expenses like travel to archives. Having access to a rich and robust array of digital archives and special collections is really crucial in giving all of our students equal opportunities to conduct original research in primary sources.”

Our students are encouraged to work with primary sources and do archival work, but our university emphasises an ethos of no hidden costs for students. Having access to a rich and robust array of digital archives and special collections is really crucial in giving all of our students an equal opportunity to conduct original research in primary sources.

Two library-led workshops introducing AM Explorer to students

Primary sources for second-year dissertations and career preparation

At Lincoln, students and faculty already had perpetual access to Mass Observation Online, First World War Portal, Empire Online, Women in The National Archives and Mass Observation Online was thoroughly embedded in a second-year course called ‘Accessing Ordinary Lives’. The ‘Dissertations and Career Preparation’ module, which Lincoln runs for undergraduate students in the Spring term of their second year, is a course that provides an opportunity to make the most out of Lincoln’s new AM Explorer subscription.

The module has a dual function that reflects the priorities for undergraduate students in the mid-point of their three-year degree: preparing them academically for their final-year dissertations as well as for job searching and careers beyond their degrees. Hope elaborated on how these two goals can come together for students in primary source research: “as part of that process, students are also reflecting on what they’re learning by doing the dissertation, including skills of primary source research that they can take forward in their career – skills like successfully locating information, successfully interpreting and contextualising information and presenting it effectively.” Hope added that these considerations were central both to librarians and faculty “in structuring our workshops and our instruction list for students.”

One of the things we’re very much finding here in Lincoln is that the Covid-19 situation makes access to online archives absolutely critical for BA and MA level work and it’s one of the reasons we’re really excited to go forward with AM Explorer and see what happens in the future.

Introduction to primary sources for an American Studies seminar

With his colleague Yoli-Bergstorm Lynch, a Research, Instruction and Outreach Librarian at Trinity College, Jeff led a workshop to students for an American Studies seminar on ‘US Empire and the Asia/Pacific Wars’ investigating the US military involvement in Asia and the Pacific Islands. The faculty teaching the course identified discovering, analysing, and interpreting primary sources as key learning outcomes to prepare students for their final graded research project.

The librarians pre-selected faculty-vetted primary sources to be used in group assignments at the workshop. Each group were assigned one primary source, which they discussed and interrogated, prompted by an analysis questionnaire created by the librarians. Two groups were assigned primary sources available through AM Explorer.

  1. A 1904 pamphlet on the Philippine Exposition produced for the Louisiana Purchase Exposition, digitised by AM from St. Louis Mercantile Library in the World’s Fairs: A Global History of Expositions. For this primary source, the librarians promoted discussion of voice and representation: who was the source created for, and why? Whose voices were represented, and whose were absent in the imagery and language of the source?
  2. A letter from Sonoko Iwata to her husband Shigezo, who was detained in an incarceration camp in New Mexico during World War II, digitised from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania in AM’s Migration to New Worlds. The students focussed on the censor stamp on the upper left-hand corner and analysed passages in the letter to examine whether the censorship changed what the Iwatas expressed to each other in writing.

After discussing the primary sources in their groups, students had the opportunity to present their discussion to the class and to take their ideas further in response to questions from other students. The exercise also helped the students gain confidence in analysing handwritten documents and formulating research questions based on primary source research.

“The workshop was really great”, Jeff said, discussing the outcomes of the workshop. “The faculty really enjoyed it, and we received a lot of positive comments from our students.” He further elaborated on how the workshop improved students' “confidence to synthesise sources in their wider research”, a key competency they continue to build on during their degrees. The workshop also provided them with agency and confidence in interpreting and analysing evidence, empowering students to “enter the scholarly conversation with other scholars, with other researchers who interpreted the same piece of evidence.”

Download the assignment used at Trinity College

Beyond the workshop: 4 tips for introducing students to AM Explorer

Individual collections vs. AM Explorer platform

Both Jeff and Hope mentioned that the student’s research interest dictated whether they recommended the AM Explorer platform or individual AM collections and sub-collections to the student. “If I had a student come to me and say, I want to work with something to do with World’s Fairs, I know that this collection exists and I would absolutely point them to that directly”, Jeff explained. “But there’s a lot of great content related to Victorian London across different AM collections. So, when I work with classes studying poverty in Victorian London, I would point students towards a different type of research and different type of discovery to get them to engage with the more relevant content.”

Using individual research consultations as a promotional opportunity

Building on this difference between AM Explorer platform and individual collections, Hope discussed one-on-one research consultations as a promotional opportunity. “One of the things I found especially in the online one-to-one research consultations that I’ve been doing over the lockdown is that research support for students is really a promotional opportunity. I’ve found that sometimes it’s useful to take the opportunity not just to show students how to do a Googlesque search within the AM Explorer platform, but also to help them make a match between their research interest and a specific archive that can help them uncover our rich array of documents and images and other sources for their topics. Few students and faculty will know what a librarian means when one of us says, ‘Have you tried AM Explorer?’ So, one of my suggestions might be to focus on making that match between a specific collection and research support inquiry and use that as a way in to guide students through the search of the full AM Explorer platform.”

Promotional opportunities from usage statistics

Lincoln’s acquisition of AM Explorer at the same time as lockdown restrictions were imposed in the UK led to a dramatic increase in usage numbers. To Hope, these usage numbers were useful in effectively focussing effectively her promotional work: “I have looked at usage figures to see where there are collections that haven’t been used as heavily, but we have the research and teaching interest that to match those collections. This tells me that we have more work to do promoting them with the appropriate faculty.”

Collaboration between Subject Liaisons

Hope also mentioned some of the challenges and opportunities arising from accessing such a wide range and volume of content at once. “The databases that we’d acquired from AM before were very much geared towards teaching and research amongst the history faculty”, she pointed out. “However, the disciplinary range the of AM Explorer portfolio is much wider, covering the social sciences, theatre and drama, film and TV, English Literature, business history, and more. One of the things we’re looking forward to in the future at Lincoln is taking the opportunity to promote these databases with other subject liaisons and faculty members in other departments. And that’s one of the pieces of advice I would give, if you’re also working in a subject liaison set-up in your library, is think about ways to build partnerships with other librarians and with your faculty to really promote these collections successfully.”

About the authors

Dr Hope Williard has been an academic subject librarian at the University of Lincoln, UK, since 2017, where she supports teaching, learning and research in the School of History and Heritage, and School of Performing Arts, and has collaborated on the creation of new degrees in Modern History, Music, Musical Theatre, Art History, and Classical Studies. A medieval historian by background, Hope loves to help students with the joys and challenges of using primary sources for their research projects.

Jeff Liszka is the Arts and Humanities Librarian at Trinity College in Hartford, CT. Jeff is the subject liaison to the History, American Studies, English, Classical Studies and Philosophy departments. He works with students one-on-one in research consultations on how to discover, analyze and incorporate primary sources into their research assignments. Jeff also collaborates with teaching faculty in developing workshops to address course research instruction needs and concepts around primary source evidence.

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