Primary Inquiry at Occidental: A Co-Lab for Information Literacy

Dead Birds have Value

Two Lessons in How Not to Handle your Sources

For a little context...
It may seem strange to say, but Occidental College has a storied history in the use of dead birds as information. When you think of research with primary source materials, you might conjure up an image of, say, an old letter, or a book of memoirs. However, students as far afield as Biology, Media Arts and Culture, and Comparative Studies in Literature and Culture, such as Jessie Salter (Bio '14), Ella Fornari (Bio/MAC '16), and Josh Medina (CSLC '19), have conducted interdisciplinary undergraduate research using stuffed specimens (or "skins") from the world-renowned ornithology collection of the Moore Lab of Zoology, named after its first curator (1951-58) Oxy Professor Robert T. Moore, and now curated by Professor John McCormack. History Professor Lisa Sousa taught a course on Mexican history in collaboration with the Moore Lab that studied uses of birds and feathers by the Najuatl as a kind of language. 

This sequence of co-curricular activities and web-based media programming explores fundamental questions at the heart of information literacy ("Information has Value") as they pertain to collections of specimens and artifacts, as one would find in a museum: how were items collected, by whom, and at what cost (to the collector, to the specimen, to the peoples and environments from which they were taken), and with what motivations? The questions of cost represent one side of value, which can be understood in many ways, such as monetary value, intrinsic value, value to science, etc. In the two examples that follow, the value of items becomes clear as a matter of loss, when something is stolen. A deeper look into the "provenance" of these objects of inquiry, however, reveals other kinds of loss, such loss of life, loss of a way of life, and loss of natural environments exposed by the collection activity.

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