Week 6: Primary sources, digitally

This week we’re learning about digital primary sources and how we use them, but more broadly we’re thinking about how historians use evidence.



Watch this video from the Library of Congress. It’s meant for teachers, but you can pretend to be a teacher for a few minutes. Now answer these questions from the video in your group’s Slack channel:

  • Think about your day for the last 24 hours. What evidence have you left behind of those events? How would a historian write the history of your life? What would they probably leave out because they didn’t have any evidence?


  • Go to the website of the Digital Public Library of America. Do a search for words related to your war. In your Slack group, put a link to one of the primary-source items that comes up in your search. Explain what your source tells us about the war you’re studying (be specific!). The source doesn’t have to be text–it could be an image.
  • Once you’ve got a few different sources in your group chat, think about what links the sources you’ve put in together. How might you craft a narrative about the war based only on the sources you have? Go ahead and give it a try–forget everything you know about your war thus far, and just focus on what the sources are telling you: write a paragraph or two interpreting those documents.



Watch this video about metadata, and then in your group, give examples of metadata in the items you’ve been looking at this week, and explain why we need metadata to understand and categorize the sources you’ve been looking at.

What we’re doing today

Now that you’ve been looking at some primary sources, it’s time to learn how to keep track of them. Just like with secondary sources, it’s important that you know where your primary sources came from, and how you can use them. If you don’t know where a source came from, it’s not ethical for you to use it. So when you’re looking at sources online, it’s critically important that you keep track of where you get things from, and also what you can do with the sources you find online.

Just because something is on the Internet doesn’t mean you have the right to use it in any way. Images and text on the Internet still fall under copyright laws. We’ll be talking more about copyright in a few weeks, but keep it in your mind now.

To keep track of sources by using metadata, we’re going to learn another piece of software: Tropy. (Full disclosure on Tropy: I am the director of the project, so I obviously think this is the right tool for this job. But there really isn’t anything else out there like Tropy, and it’s also free and open-source, so I’m not getting any kickbacks from you using Tropy.)

So here’s Small Project #3.

Small Project #3: Tropy

You’ve been identifying primary sources along with your group, so you’ve got a group of primary sources now. Your job is to bring these sources into Tropy so that you can know what those sources are, and where they came from.

Before you get into Tropy, you need to read these two pieces of the user guide:

Then you’re ready to start thinking about your sources. Tropy is built for all kinds of primary sources, most of which are probably photographs taken by researchers in the archives. You’re obviously not going to be doing that. But the process is exactly the same.

So here’s your task:

Look at all the sources your group has posted. Then add them to Tropy, making sure you fill out the metadata properly. Then write a descriptive blog post about your items, discussing how each of them fits into the history of your conflict, including in your blog post a screenshot (metadata and image visible) of each of your items in Tropy.

  • Tropy installation: tropy.org
  • Additional metadata templates (and instructions for using them)–you’ll need these templates in order to fill out all the metadata fields properly
  • You need at least these elements (but must also fill out fields for others that are available):
    • Title
    • Archive
    • Identifier
    • Web URL

Now, how do you know how to use Tropy? There are two ways you can figure it out.

A few notes

  • As you may have noticed, the DPLA is what we call a “content aggregator.” In other words, the DPLA is not the “home” of any of the sources you’ve looked at–it’s merely a reference. So when you go get your sources, and find their metadata, make sure you get that info from the actual archive your source lives in, NOT the DPLA. Click through to the full item.
  • What do you do if some of the items you’ve found don’t have an image? You can exclude those.

This project might take a little time, so you have two weeks to do it. If this explainer isn’t enough, I may record a more detailed video for you next week.

**Submit your project via this Form.**