What is a Primary Source?
When teaching and learning history, the term "primary
source" generally refers to official documents, letters, diaries,
photographs, advertisements and about any other print material found
in its original form. These materials may be transcribed and/or reproduced.
However, for purposes of historical accuracy the content will reflect
the original document.
The term "historical artifact" on the other
hand is generally understood to be broader and includes primary sources,
as well as a host of other objects not limited to print material.
Ranging from farmhouse kitchen utensils to farm equipment, historical
artifacts can be found almost anywhere.
A "secondary source" is a summary of history
based upon the historical record drawn from artifacts and primary
sources. The most obvious example of a secondary source would be the
traditional history textbook found in every classroom library.
Teaching With Primary Sources
For decades, history educators have advocated the use
of primary source materials in teaching history. The instructional
advantages are numerous. Among them is the power of primary sources
to unlock for students a genuine interest in history, to stimulate
thinking and to encourage the formation of judgments about the past.
When using primary sources, consider the following tips
that will help bridge the readability gap and conceptual load carried
by most primary sources.
- Select a specific and limited section of a document for students
to read with a partner.
- Give students a key idea to think about while reading/skimming
a section of primary source text.
- Introduce key words or key ideas before reading. Have students
focus on these terms when reading a section.
- Have students skim a passage to locate specific words or ideas.
- Use the copy and paste function of your computer to place a particular
passage of reading in a word processing document that can be reproduced
as a hard copy.
- Read a limited passage aloud to students. Provide key ideas to
help focus student listening.
- Guide students to use context clues when defining unfamiliar terms
Assets and Liabilities of Primary Sources
In the article, History
Goes Digital: Teaching With On-line Primary Sources, by Bill Tally,
Tally suggests primary sources offer the following assets as instructional
- Online primary source materials promise authentic resources that
enliven history for students and teachers.
- With primary source materials, students work with the fragmentary
and detailed pieces of evidence that historians themselves use as
building blocks in retelling the past.
- Online historical archives invite teachers and students to confront
new kinds of materials, new perspectives on historical events, and
a new need for historical context.
- Primary sources, approached critically, can help students build
an authentic and complete portrait of the past unlike textbook material
that tends to be softened for students through editing.
Tally also warns of the following liabilities:
- Practical considerations are the most common challenges for instructors
using online primary source archives. These include access to good
quality sources of information, up-to-date operating equipment and
the time to make use of online materials.
- Online collections often include photographs, films, audio recordings,
pamphlets, and political cartoons. Teachers and students need a
wide array of skills to successfully interpret the different media.
- The faithful depiction of the language, thinking, and behavior
of historical actors, when out of step with contemporary values
or when patently offensive to many, is another challenge for teachers.
Online historical sources may include racist language in its raw
unedited form with little if any contextual explanation or interpretation.
- The multiple perspectives presented by primary source archives
make history, and history teaching, more complicated. They may also
touch emotional nerves in students that can result in the history
classroom becoming a more volatile place.
- Online primary sources are both vast and fragmentary and finding
resources for specific curriculum topics can be difficult.
- Because most documents relate to specific events such as an impending
treaty, a wounded soldier's convalescence or the opening of a world's
fair, students need assistance with the historical context in order
to make sense of the documents.