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Exploring Primary Sources: Coal in Kentucky Exercise: Exercise

This module serves as an introduction to primary source research through investigation and evaluation of documents related to the coal industry in Kentucky.

Information for Instructors

If you wish to complete this exercise online, split your students into four equal groups, one group for each tab of the exercise. Each tab contains different primary sources, background information to help students better understand the documents, and questions to answer as a group. Each group should be allowed 15-20 minutes to read through the source, make notes, and answer the questions. The exercise will culminate in an overall discussion where each group responds to the questions and fits their primary source into the larger context of what actually went on during these events.

This allows students to not only work in groups and to learn more about these events, but to better understand the context and biases that are involved when doing research with primary sources. Each primary source document will represent a different point of view, was created for a different audience, and will contain underlying clues as to the motivations and prejudices of the group that created it. Focus on these learning outcomes throughout the exercise:

  • Power: Encourage students to consider the power relationships presented in the materials. How do the different levels of power impact the existence and preservation of archival materials? Identify the gaps or silences and discuss how they impact the research process.
  • Audience: Each of these primary sources was created with a different audience in mind. Prompt your students to focus on who would be reading or hearing each piece. This will help them to make connections about bias and the purpose behind the documents.
  • Curiosity: Encourage your students to look beyond these questions or documents. What resources online can they find related to these topics? What else do they reveal about the larger context surrounding the coal industry in Kentucky? Allow your students to take advantage of the tools available to them.

This is an outstanding introduction to primary source research, and the scaffolding approach of layering different views and perspectives should show your students the intricacies and necessary care when doing this kind of work. If you would like to do this activity in person, there are links and .pdf files of each primary source document included on each tab. For more information or to schedule an in-person class visit to the Special Collections Research Center, please contact Matthew Strandmark using the button on the Home tab.

Exercise: Exploring Primary Sources

  1. Brainstorm. List 10-20 words or phrases about the documents/items. (Start with the details of the documents, like topic, names, publication, etc. What do you find interesting? Strange? Do you find anything appealing or disturbing? Things you don’t understand or are unfamiliar with?)
  2. Articulating Problems. Formulate 2-4 possible problems that could be developed from the above list of words and description of materials. (Problems can be found by looking for tensions between ideas, conflicts between your own experience and what the text/image presents, assumptions underlying the arguments of the text/item, or if you notice any gaps or missing information overlooked by the source).
  3. Posing Fruitful Questions. List 2-4 open-ended questions for one problem that could lead to more in-depth research.
  4. What is at Stake? Thinking about the description, brainstorming list, problems, and questions, write 2-5 sentences answering the following: So what? Why does this matter? Why would someone care about this topic and why?