Using Primary Sources
he most effective use of primary source materials (documents, objects, photographs, oral histories) allows the student to draw conclusions based on his/her own exploration of the materials. One way to approach the use of primary sources in the classroom is to give students the materials with very little accompanying information about them. Provide students with a questioning strategy to guide their process of investigation. The questions should proceed from very general (what are your first impressions of this document?) to deeper level questions (what does this object tell you about its user?). Teachers should save questions specific to content (what does President Jefferson write about maps?) until students have completed an initial investigation of the source. This process provides students with an active role in historical investigation.
This curriculum provides two questioning guides for use with primary source materials:
For older students, especially, it is important to note that primary sources contain bias and are subjective in nature. No source should stand alone. Historians gather as many primary sources as possible in order to form an interpretation. The Lewis and Clark journals, for example, provide both men's perspectives on the expedition. Because they are the most detailed accounts of the expedition, the journals are quoted widely. However, Lewis and Clark were selective in their decisions about which events to record. Their perspectives are based on their background and place in life, and differed from the those of the people with whom they interacted.
All students of history should be able to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.
Primary Source: a first-hand, original account, record or piece of evidence about a person, place, object, or event. Oral histories, objects, photographs, and documents - such as newspapers, ledgers, census records, diaries, journals, letters and receipts - are primary sources.
Secondary Source - an account, record or piece of evidence derived from an original or primary source. Textbooks are secondary sources.
For more information about using primary source materials, visit the Library of Congress website at: