Big Data.

These two words have created a hot debate topic in recent years. For good and responsible researchers, however, learning how to harness and channel the amount of valuable information we can now gain access to through Big Data is not only ethical, but it’s also essential to progress, advancement, and learning. The Nashville Library is a good place for future professionals to practice such skills.

As part of their ongoing partnership with Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College, the Special Collections Center welcomed around 30 middle school and high school students from the community for a two-day workshop in July for the purpose of using Big Data to research their family history and genealogy. Facilitators aided the young scholars as they immersed themselves in activities like interviewing parents, researching ancestors, and thinking critically about how to use Big Data to trace their roots. They turned to sources such as the census and World Health Organization documents in order to pinpoint overall migration and social patterns. Students were then able to use their datasets to either challenge or confirm narratives they had been told as to why their ancestors and families immigrated. By the end of the workshop, they were given the opportunity to  invite their family members in for participant-created presentations on their research findings. The event became an interactive celebration of family, culture, and education.

Gathering such detailed knowledge through Big Data research equipped these students with a better understanding of how life was different for their grandparents and great-grandparents, and how choices made generations ago are still impacting their lives today. They walked away with a better grasp on where they came from and a broader comprehension of how their families’ stories fit into larger national – and even global – trends.

Make no mistake, Peabody College’s partnership with the Special Collections Center is not limited to this summer’s Storytelling with Big Data workshop; Special Collections often works alongside Peabody’s graduate students in Education for the purpose of helping them develop a deeper understanding of out-of-classroom learning. For example, two such graduate classes recently came together to visit our Civil Rights Room with the objective of experiencing the space from the perspective of a young student. Another such class is using primary sources from our Civil Rights Collection to create walking tours around Nashville that will showcase the power of human migration and movement.

We are committed to continue working with these scholars to help train and equip our community’s young people, both at the library and for their future careers.


Students at Storytelling with Big Data summer workshop