Digital Tools Unlock Primary Sources for Remote Learning

Detail of student work in Scalar.

Detail of student work in Scalar


What if you could time-travel back three centuries and eavesdrop on European authors and readers as they aired their viewpoints on politics and religion? And do it without leaving home?

Students taking Professor Muriel McClendon’s undergraduate seminar on historical research methods last spring did just that thanks to Christopher Gilman, UCLA Library’s digital curriculum coordinator, who energized and enlivened this remote-learning course.

Hired for 2021 by UCLA Library, Gilman is helping faculty around the campus take advantage of digital assets and resources as they develop course curricula.

“Chris did all the heavy lifting,” said McClendon. “This was a really cool experience. Just the way the course was organized was very different from the way I’ve done it before.”

Students chose a book from the Clark Library’s digital collection (1472-1818) of more than 250 early modern books with handwritten annotations. By closely studying marginalia, students learned to analyze primary source materials to see how readers reacted to authors’ perspectives during this period of political, religious and social upheaval.

The digital tools and the authoring platform that UCLA history major Carson Turner learned to use “brought a lot of the work to life in such a way that I had never seen before,” he said. “Being able to access the Clark Library and, in particular, the special annotated collections was really eye-opening and a great introduction to the level of primary source and research materials that UCLA has to offer its students.”

Using Scalar, the open-source authoring and publishing platform, “was a way of getting students excited about and engaged with materials that are hundreds of years old,” said Gilman, who taught students how to use all the digital resources. “He was involved in all aspects of this course. It would never ever have happened without Chris,” McClendon said.

The final result? “Ex Libris,” a Scalar digital book project showcasing multimedia essays by the students who wrote text and embedded digital images and illustrations taken from many different sources.

Gilman is now developing modules and course templates that can be used by other faculty. As for McClendon, remote learning has given her a valuable addition to her teaching toolkit.