Lost and Found: An Exercise in Finding Sources Online

By Natascha van der Zwan, Leiden University


Location: A computer lab with internet access or have students bring a laptop to a classroom with wifi access.

Group size: The exercise works best in groups of 8-10 students, but larger group size is possible.


The exercise requires some preparation on the part of the instructor. Most importantly, the instructor needs to decide up front 1) which historic event to study and 2) what kind of databases to discuss during class. Both choices will depend on academic discipline, the knowledge and skills students are expected to be familiar with, and the university’s resources.

When it comes to choosing a historic event, it is important to minimize the odds that digital primary sources are widely available online. For this reason, it is recommended to select an event that took place prior to the broad use of the Internet, probably well before the 1990s. It is also recommended to select an event that is not too historically prominent, since primary sources related major historic events or events related to major historic figures will be more likely to have been digitized already. These are very useful for other kinds of exercises, but not necessarily this particular one. Finally, you want to take language limitations into account. My courses are taught in English and tend to consist of 70% Dutch students and 30% international students, so I often aim for historic events from the Anglo-American world.

The second preparatory task for the instructor is to make a list of which databases students should be (made) aware of and to make sure that the databases actually contain or will lead to primary sources related to the chosen historic event. This last step is obviously very important, because you want to prevent that even appropriate search strategies render no results. It is also recommended to double-check which databases can be accessed freely online, which ones are accessible via the university library and which ones will be unaccessible to students.

The Exercise

Students receive the assignment to find or identify the location of primary sources related to a particular historic event, selected in advance by the instructor. The exercise is taught in three parts.

During Part 1, students roam freely online and carry out the assignment, as they see fit. Students are encouraged to take notes on which sources they have found and how they have found them. The instructor walks around the classroom to observe which websites students visit.

During part 2 of the assignment, students report back on what they have found and how they have found it. The instructor uses their own observations of what students have done and calls on particular students to ensure that a diversity of search strategies is discussed. E.g. “Anna, I noticed that you were reading a publication in Google Books. How did you find it? And what did you find?” You may have noticed that one or more students already searched through one of the databases you were planning to discuss. You can call on that student last. In my experience, though, the large majority of students will have relied on Google, Google Scholar or Wikipedia.

In part 3, better search strategies are discussed. Here, the instructor introduces the students to the databases they want the students to be familiar with. I normally discuss ways to find historical newspaper articles (Proquest Historical, Delpher) as well as locate relevant archival collections (Worldcat), but this may be adjusted in accordance with students’ needs and study program.

This part of the exercise can be as much student- or teacher-led as you prefer. Sometimes there is a student in class who already is aware of the relevant databases and who know how to work with them. In that case, I will have that student take the lead and show others how they found their sources. Depending on the mood of the group, I might also take the lead and demonstrate the appropriate search strategies myself. Here it helps to be in a computer lab, because I can use the instructor computer and projector to show students what I am doing. On yet other occasions, I might simply point students in the direction of a good database and have them figure out for themselves how to operate it. We will then have another report back moment afterwards.

The exercise ends with a short Q&A.

It is recommended to give students a follow-up assignment, that allows them to practice by themselves the skills they have started to develop during class.
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