Lesson Plan: Primary Documents as Material Culture: Encouraging Students to See a Source from All Sides

Elizabeth Kelly Gray
An engraving of the old jail and marketplace in Boston from the early 20th century.

“Old-Town Gaol, Marketplace, Boston,” from A. C. Addison’s The Romantic Story of the Mayflower Pilgrims and Its Place in the Life of To-Day (Boston: L. C. Page & Company, 1911). Courtesy of xroads.virginia.edu.

I’ve been teaching the History methods course for about fifteen years, revising it as I find new readings to include or as I come up with new ways to approach old topics. Recently I realized that I want to teach parts of it as if it were a lab science—to have my students do the work of historians whenever possible. They do this, of course, when they conduct research and write a paper, but additional exercises can help them to experience other aspects of our work. One assignment asks students to engage with the materiality of a primary source and then pushes them to think more profoundly about the nature of such sources and of the archive itself. And even better, they enjoy the work.

In the exercise, the students work collectively to transcribe a page from a handwritten source; I use an obscure work from 1800. To prepare for the session I reserve a computer lab, to ensure that everyone can participate. I number the lines on my photograph of the page that they will transcribe, and I post it on Blackboard as class begins. I tell them that they have the session to transcribe it and that, if they work together, they should be able to complete the task by the end of class. I offer to provide up to five hints. They divide up the work and type their transcription on a shared Google Doc. They help each other when someone can’t decipher something, and they’re usually done in 45 or 50 minutes. Working on the exercise as a group helps them to bond, and the arrangement is also beneficial in case some students have difficulty reading cursive handwriting.

In the subsequent session we discuss their work as transcribers, as well as the following:

  1. How published editions of primary sources are edited—that is, what additional work would we have to do to prepare it for publication? For example, we discuss what we could include in an introductory essay and how we could use footnotes to provide information about people or events mentioned by our author.
  2. What we learn from seeing the handwritten version of a source. It can, for example, indicate the author’s level of education.
  3. How to find additional sources that pertain to the primary source, to learn more about the subject of the writing. This can be a way to introduce them to useful databases or to enhance their familiarity with them.
  4. The facts that, while the writings of well-known people are transcribed and published, so many other works exist solely in manuscript form, and the varying levels of availability affect the writing of history.
  5. The fact that archives house many one-of-a-kind sources.
A handwritten page from Memories of a Thief.

A page from Memoirs of a Thief at the Massachusetts Historical Society.

The exercise works well—some students describe the work as “fun”!—and I attribute its success, in large part, to the source that I use for it. I assign a page from Memoirs of a Thief, which a career criminal named Charles Blade penned while in jail in Boston, around 1800. I photographed the memoir several years ago at the Massachusetts Historical Society, believing that it could be useful to my research project at the time. While its research value for that project was limited, it has been a huge gift to my teaching.

The transcribing exercise could work well with sources other than a page from Memoirs of a Thief, but I believe that, for the exercise to be effective, whatever source is used should have some of the characteristics of Blade’s work:

  1. Blade’s boasting about his life of crime makes for a fascinating story. His crimes begin on the first page, and they continue as he leaves his native Germany for America and roams up and down the eastern seaboard, as far north as Maine and as far south as Wilmington, North Carolina, always looking for unsupervised merchandise. Among many other thefts, he steals unattended pocketbooks, jewelry from a silversmith’s shop, and a watch and shoe buckles from a lawyer’s desk. Each time, he states how much money he made upon selling the loot. Sometimes, Blade is arrested and convicted. Repeatedly, he is whipped for his crimes—receives “stripes,” as he recalls. Usually, however, after describing a theft he reports that he “went off Clear.” His crimes and his apparent pride in his exploits make for an interesting read and therefore sustain students’ attention.
  2. Blade’s handwriting, while legible, is not the clearest, and it is therefore a challenge to decipher. In the follow-up session, I show them other handwritten sources from the era that are neater and clearer. One of those sources would be easier to transcribe, but Blade’s handwriting provides the right degree of a challenge. It wouldn’t work if I used a handwritten page from someone with excellent penmanship, or someone whose writing was illegible.
  3. Except for one brief mention in a dissertation, it appears that nobody has used Memoirs of a Thief as a source. It can be helpful for students to work with a source that is new to them and that has been overlooked, because it helps me to convey that, even with older topics, it is possible to find rich, unused sources.

The session after their transcribing lab provides an opportunity for us to discuss the use of primary sources generally, including how they are prepared for publication, but also to explore aspects that pertain specifically to the source that we used. Regarding Memoirs of a Thief, we discuss the following:

  1. To what degree can we trust his account, since he was a skilled deceiver? For example, is it plausible that he really remembered how much money he received every time he sold stolen merchandise, when he made such sales dozens of times?
  2. What other sources can we find to learn more about him, or to corroborate what he wrote? I show them an item from the Pennsylvania Packet in 1788 that reports on Blade being punished for one of his crimes. This helps to show how we can gauge the accuracy of a source and how to put a story together using multiple primary sources.
  3. What can we do when we encounter unfamiliar words? We discuss the “long s” (or “medial s”), which Blade used but which was beginning to go out of fashion in 1800. In other places, he uses words that are obsolete or whose definitions have since changed, which provides an opportunity to show the value of the Oxford English Dictionary as a resource.

This exercise also allows us to discuss the crucial work of archivists. Earlier in the semester we visit the university’s archives, where the students learn about these repositories and look at early yearbooks, campus newspapers, student handbooks, and campus photographs. After the transcribing session we discuss the fact that archivists preserve many one-of-a-kind works, many of them unread or unused, and that these works can also enhance our understanding of the past.

These sessions also help my students to think in new and valuable ways about the primary sources that they find on databases and in edited volumes or that they find quoted in secondary sources. While it is important for them to have easy access to primary and secondary sources, it is helpful for them to see primary sources in their original form so they can see how historians know what we know, and so they can consider all that goes into preparing these raw materials for readers’ consumption.

This assignment, therefore, benefits all parties: I encourage my students to have a more thoughtful perspective regarding primary sources, they enjoy the detective work as they decipher the memoir, and Charles Blade, who wanted to tell of his deeds (or misdeeds), finds the audience that he craved.

17 August 2022

About the Author

Elizabeth Kelly Gray is associate professor of history at Towson University.

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