How to Use Digitized Historical Primary Sources in the Classroom: An Experiment in “Scientific History”


Last December, Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange claimed that his organization had coined a new type of journalism called “scientific journalism”. According to Assange, “[s]cientific journalism allows you to read a news story, then to click online to see the original document it is based on. That way you can judge for yourself: Is the story true?”

I thought this was a really compelling idea for historians in the age of digitized historical primary sources. Our heaps of footnotes and endnotes are intended to be a kind of trail of breadcrumbs for other researchers to verify our findings. Given the terabytes of digitized historical primary sources now available online through fantastic repositories, including Early Canadiana Online, American Memory by the Library of Congress, and Internet Archive, historians could also attempt a similar experiment with “scientific history”. Alongside our footnotes, we could provide hyperlinks to the direct sources. This approach to citations, I think, is increasingly relevant considering the growth of academic e-reading (both books and journal articles).

This semester I adopted this “scientific history” approach for several of the discussion lessons for my course on the history of the Canadian West. I’ll share one of those lessons here:

Visual Media and the Execution of Thomas Scott

I asked my students to first read the following article:

Dick, Lyle. “Nationalism and Visual Media in Canada: The Case of Thomas Scott’s Execution.” Manitoba History no. 48 (2004): 2-18.

In this article, Lyle Dick discusses the visual representation of the execution of Thomas Scott in March 1870 during the course of the Red River resistance effort, led by Louis Riel. Dick argues that the image published on the cover of the Canadian Illustrated News on 23 April 1870 had a profound impact on central Canadian perceptions of Riel and the Métis resistance. This image galvanized English Canadian opposition to Riel’s efforts at Red River and motivated calls for his arrest.

I then asked students to consult a couple of sources Dick uses directly from the Canadian Illustrated News, which have been digitized by Bibliothèque et Archives nationales du Québec:

“The Red River Difficulty” Canadian Illustrated News, 15 January 1870, pgs. 1-2.

Canadian Illustrated News, 9 April 1870, pg. 358, columns 1-2.

Canadian Illustrated News, 23 April 1870, pg. 385.

We then compared the 1870 articles to Dick’s arguments and sustained a very engaging discussion about the role of visual media during the Red River resistance. I found that this exercise provided me with several opportunities to point out the methodologies of historical research and writing. Students were also given a chance to look at Dick’s sources in much closer detail and judge whether or not his arguments are sound.

This, of course, is not an entirely unique approach to a history discussion lesson. There are many historians who incorporate historical primary sources into their classes. If you’re one such historian, please share your experiences in the comments section.

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