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Monica (and Bill F.),

You raise some really interesting questions about online documents and students'
reading. When we at CCT watched students work with American Memory docs in print
form, we noticed that sometimes students did indeed confuse primary and
secondary material. But the difficulty was minimized by the way we tended to
format the printed materials: without thinking much about it, we created clear
demarcations (using bold text, boxes, italics) to separate primary from
secondary materials.  Also, we kept the primary texts short, so that their
authorship was clearly visible.  Finally, the documents we had students work
with tended to be somewhat dramatic, and so differed in tone from the
surrounding material.  All these are techniques that are fairly standard, I
think, in 'prepared' classroom materials. They also tend to be missing on the
net.

I agree with you -- people who claim that hypertext raises altogether new
problems  for readers tend to overstate the case. Voice, genre and discourse
style are the same in electronic and non-electronic texts, and they are hard for
students to discern in both.  What hypertext does, I think, is intensify the
difficulty by removing many of the aids that we usually use to help readers make
these distinctions. It is true, I think, that in the strange click-happy flow of
cyberspace, authorship tends to become muted. Also, students have access to so
many different docs that many 'primary' documents can look and sound much like
'secondary' ones (eg government reports, documentary photos, etc).  And non-
linearity means that we cannot necessarily 'frame' a primary text with a
secondary text -- readers may skip the frame, and not know it. Further, text
tends to have a uniform look on the web no matter what the genre.  The visual
conventions of the web are in flux and do not yet help us steer readers easily
in the right directions.

I think there are two main ways we can respond.  The most important will be to
create more skilled and active readers, regardless of medium.  The number and
diversity of texts that students need to negotiate well will only increase
across all media.  The second thing is to keep experimenting with design
conventions and formats on the web that help readers identify different kinds of
docs, keep authorship in mind, and generally follow more active reading
techniques.

I'm curious to know what you and others may think about this. Is anyone else
noticing that students have trouble with primary and secondary docs in different
formats?   Best to all,

Bill Tally