Using Primary Sources
"Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects (diaries, paintings, letters, prints, photographs, political cartoons, interviews, speeches, film footage, manuscripts, government reports, maps, songs, etc.) which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience. Examining primary sources gives students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past."
Here are some things to think about when using primary sources:
Closely observe the source:
- Who created this primary source?
- When was it created?
- Where does your eye go first?
Pay attention to details:
- What do you see that you didn’t expect?
- What powerful words and ideas are expressed?
Think about your personal response to the source:
- What feelings and thoughts does the primary source trigger in you?
- What questions does it raise?
Speculate about the 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?
Does the source agree with other primary sources, or with what you already know?
- Test your assumptions about the past
- Try to find other primary or secondary sources that provide support or contradiction
For more on analyzing different types of primary sources, please visit the following page:
Section drawn from Library of Congress, "Using Primary Sources," Teachers, accessed February 13, 2019. https://www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/index.html