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A Taste of History: Students in food history class learn about primary source research

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Food is one of those historical subjects that is as much a part of the archive as it is a part of everyday life. But finding primary sources about food isn’t always a piece of cake. That’s what students in Professor Leslie Tuttle’s seminar on “Food in History” discovered during a recent visit to Special Collections.

Using document analysis worksheets, Tuttle’s students explored many different kinds of primary sources. They learned that information on food history is often “hiding” in unexpected places that the library catalog won’t necessarily find. For example, one student found illustrations of an eighteenth-century bakery in Denis Diderot’s Encyclopédie. Another located dozens of food-themed caricatures in a collection of prints related to the Franco-Prussian War. A mess hall menu used by cadets at LSU in the 1890s turned up the Office of the Chancellor Records.

IMG_2020Several students were asked to find the connection between food history and materials like an 1866 New Orleans city directory and a fire insurance map of Alexandria printed in 1914. The directory, they realized, is full of advertisements for restaurants, grocery stores, confectioners, wine merchants, and brewers, as well as statistics on the Louisiana sugar crop and how much food the city imported. The fire insurance map shows the location of Alexandria’s ice cream factory and meat packing plant. Neither source, it turns out, can be located by entering a food-related search term in the library catalog. Thus, the students saw for themselves the inherent limitations of discovery tools and the need to think independently about where information might be found.

The activity also helped students understand that a single primary source can usually support multiple research topics. For example, the New Orleans city directory and map of Alexandria could also be used to study the history of race in the United States. African-American tradesmen listed in the post-Civil War city directory are designated as “colored,” while the highly detailed Jim Crow-era fire insurance map shows things like the white and black platforms at Alexandria’s train station, segregated hotels, and the black baseball field.

“As my students were beginning to think about research, they weren’t factoring in all the kinds of resources they might find on campus,” Professor Tuttle commented. “Spending an hour or two exploring Hill Memorial Library’s collection has had a significant impact on the research projects the students are conceptualizing. They are beginning to think like historians. And they are downright excited about the prospect of working with real primary sources.”

To learn how you can make primary sources part of your class, see “Special Collections Instruction” on the Hill Memorial Library website. Additionally, our LibGuide to “Teaching with Special Collections” offers various sample activities for you to choose from or adapt.

Michael Taylor is Curator of Books, LSU Libraries’ Special Collections

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