Learning Through Primary Source Digitization

primary source
(Image credit: Kari Swanson: Southern CT State University)

Connecting assigned readings to classroom material can be a daunting task for many educators. However, having students relate with a primary source can be innovative, especially when items are available online. 

At Southern Connecticut State University's Hilton C. Buley Library, my university's library, students have the opportunity to view sources from past mayoral administrations, and I find the digitization process a transformational approach to understanding the importance of firsthand material. 

While textbooks tend to be the norm in academia, primary sources can be impactful for so many students. Speeches, memoranda, reports, and newspaper articles allow for mayoral eras to come alive. Buley Library has an immense collection of documents related to New Haven’s recent mayors, and many of these items are available online for students and public viewing. The collection is also discoverable when searching Google and the Digital Public Library of America

For a state university to collect, but also provide digital access to, primary sources is a rare feat. Archives and repositories such as Buley’s New Haven Mayoral Papers Collection are unique spaces for developing but also connecting education with research. 

Primary Source: Creating the Collection 

Head of Technical Services and Librarian Jacqueline Toce initially started the process of collecting and chronicling much of the material surrounding former New Haven Mayor John DeStefano, Jr. (1994-2014). “We were very excited that Mayor DeStefano trusted us with his papers,” says Toce. “This is the first collection of its kind for Buley Library. But we knew we could do the job of digitizing because we had already begun to digitize other small collections in the library.”

Toce, the mayor, and his staff coordinated initial items, and then librarians identified specific sources to digitize through the Special Collections’ SouthernDigital site. It was a laborious and intricate process, which librarians chronicled in “How the DeStefano Papers Came to Buley.” Buley Library Director Clara Ogbaa notes that the Mayoral Papers Collection is of great historical and cultural value.

Following DeStefano’s repository donation, additional mayoral administrations followed suit, including papers from former mayors Toni Harp (2014-2020), John Daniels (1990-1994) and Biagio “Ben” DiLieto (1980-1990). Many of these documents came from former mayoral staffers and families. SCSU alumnus and prior city hall attorney, Neil Proto, added more documents and a generous donation for gathering further sources and interviews of mayoral staff members. My political science professor colleague Theresa Marchant-Shapiro and I interviewed various mayoral staff members as well as helped acquire additional sources.

Teaching With a Digitized Primary Source

For my own Connecticut Politics course, we read DeStefano’s newspaper editorials from his archival collection. I also assigned Douglas Rae’s City: Urbanism and Its End, which highlights several New Haven mayoral periods, and we spent class time at the “Righting Urban Renewal” exhibit (more details below) so they could connect a monograph with primary sources. Metadata Librarian Patrick Crowley was at the exhibit with the class and answered students’ questions. Students also have final projects and some have New Haven-related topics so they can access primary sources from the library’s collection. 

Some students have utilized the mayoral digitalization files for theses, papers, and additional projects. Nicholas Alexiades, for example, examined how Mayor DeStefano addressed public school education and school construction for his honors thesis. Within the mayor’s digitized files were various proposals, reports, and budgets that helped the student’s project. The papers have also been used by Yale University students in DeStefano’s urban politics courses. 

It’s one thing for students to read secondary sources such as monographs and journal articles, but it’s quite another to view primary sources at a mayoral repository through a public university library with digitized items. 

Connecting with Digitized Primary Sources 

  • Center class discussions around archived material and assigned books 
  • Coordinate projects among faculty, librarians, archivists, and administrators
  • Highlight items and events with area media and community leaders  
  • Hold public exhibits, lectures, and discussions on themed projects 

Beyond research, a couple of history faculty and I coordinated class discussions around the library’s digitalization of DeStefano’s documents. Professors Jason Smith and Stephen Amerman’s upper and lower level classes allowed students to directly engage in researching digitized material. 

Sharing With the Public 

Once much of these mayoral items were collected and digitized, Crowley and library interns helped organize a public exhibit highlighting mayoral administrations as well as archived material. “Righting Urban Renewal: Four Mayors Grapple with the Legacy of Urban Renewal in New Haven” is featured at SCSU’s Lyman Performing Arts Center. The exhibit opening received local media attention as the event brought together students, former mayors, and their staff. In addition, SCSU Arts and Sciences Dean Bruce Kalk organized and moderated an on campus and online discussion panel with librarians and professors utilizing the mayoral papers collection. 

As a researcher, I have helped coordinate various sources with librarians as well as started several academic projects. One recent article I co-wrote with journalism Professor Jodie Gil, “Researching SCSU’s Hilton C. Buley Library’s New Haven Mayoral Archives,” was recently featured in Connecticut History Review. This past spring we also presented our paper on DeStefano’s newspaper collection to the New England Political Science Association conference. 

Looking Back/Forward 

We look to create so many more potential projects to come from Buley Library’s mayoral collection. Economic development, education and public safety areas are just the beginning of policy topics to examine. As the librarians continue their digitization process, there are future exhibits and lectures to consider, including formal openings of these mayoral administration’s collections. To work with librarians and faculty across various academic departments has sparked countless ideas, and I have cherished this interdisciplinary experience.  

Archived material can be insightful, but having primary sources available for the public and digitized is especially impactful. Engaging with these sources online allows for so many to ultimately be a part of the researching and learning process. 

Jonathan L. Wharton, Ph.D. is the School of Graduate and Professional Studies Associate Dean and teaches political science at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven. He is also a frequent contributor on WNPR and CT News Junkie columnist.