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
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
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.
In this module several primary source documents related to Albert M.
Lea are included as background information for the student activity, "Albert's
When using Lea's documentation of his explorations and observations of
the native land in 1835, 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.
Online Primary Source Collections
and Farming - Special Collections Iowa State University Library
for the History of Agriculture & Rural Life in the Iowa State University
Iowa Women's Archives