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Getting Started with Primary Sources

What are primary sources?

Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects that were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts that retell, analyze, or interpret events, usually at a distance of time or place.

Why teach with primary sources?

Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era. Helping students analyze primary sources can also prompt curiosity and improve critical thinking and analysis skills.

Primary sources expose students to multiple perspectives on significant issues of the past and present. In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials. Interacting with primary sources engages students in asking questions, evaluating information, making inferences, and developing reasoned explanations and interpretations of events and issues.

Before you begin

Successful student interactions with primary sources require careful primary source selections and lesson planning.

  • Select one or more primary sources that support the learning objectives and are accessible to students. Consider your students' needs and interests and any logistical factors for using the item, such as legibility or copyright status. The Library of Congress Primary Source Sets for educators are a good place to start and the Free to Use and Reuse sets for more general audiences are another.
  • Consider whether students will be able to identify point of view, put the items into historical context, and compare these items to other primary and secondary sources.
  • Plan instruction, including activity types, time required, and whether students will work individually, in small groups, or as a whole class. Use the Primary Source Analysis Tool from the Library of Congress and select guiding questions from the teacher's guide to support students in analyzing the primary sources.

Engage students with primary sources

Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events. Because primary sources are incomplete snippets of history, each one represents a mystery that students can only explore further by finding new pieces of evidence.

Ask students to observe each primary source.

  • Where does your eye go first?
  • What do you see that you didn’t expect?
  • What powerful words and ideas are expressed?

Encourage students to think about their response to the source.

  • What feelings and thoughts does the primary source trigger in you?
  • What questions does it raise?

Promote student inquiry

Inquiry into primary sources encourages students to wrestle with contradictions and compare multiple sources that represent differing points of view, confronting the complexity of the past.

Encourage students to speculate about each source, its creator, and its context.

  • What was happening during this time period?
  • What was the creator’s purpose in making this primary source?
  • What does the creator do to get his or her point across?
  • What was this primary source’s audience?
  • What biases or stereotypes do you see?

Ask if this source agrees with other primary sources, or with what the students already know.

Assess how students apply critical thinking and analysis skills to primary sources

Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context. Students must use prior knowledge and work with multiple resources to find patterns and construct knowledge.

Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge students’ assumptions.

  • Ask students to test their assumptions about the past.
  • Ask students to find other primary or secondary sources that offer support or contradiction.
  • Ask for reasons and specific evidence to support their conclusions.
  • Help students identify questions for further investigation and develop strategies for how they might answer them.

Offer students opportunities to demonstrate their learning by writing an essay, delivering a speech taking a stand on an issue in the primary sources, or creating a museum display about a historical topic. For more follow-up activity ideas, take a look at the general or format-specific teacher's guides.