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Primary Sources Tutorial
Primary sources are:
Five types of primary sources
- The traces, the physical and tangible remains left by the human past
- As “primary” indicates, they are first-hand, contemporaneous representations of past events, activities, and conditions
- Tangible items—letters diaries, photographs, deeds, documents, music, clothing, artifacts, utensils—that were created in the past and survive to our lifetime
- As such, their content and construction tell us something about the time in which they were created. By examining them, people in the present-day and in the future can draw conclusions about what people thought about an issue or event, the values and attitudes of a society, what social customs and institutions existed.
(Danzer and Newman, 1991, p. 24)
- Printed or written documents—
These can be published or unpublished. We typically refer to unpublished written documents as “manuscripts,” and these would include, for example, such documents as letters, diaries, deeds, wills, unpublished literary writings, journals, ledgers, and account books. As “manuscripts” implies, in the past these were usually written by hand. As technology brought the typewriter and word processing software, they are no longer necessarily handwritten. The primary characteristic is that they are unpublished. Published documents might include, for example, books, pamphlets, broadsides, newspapers, magazines, and tracts.
- Electronic media—(examples: oral histories, radio broadcast, instructional videos, newsreels)
- Graphic and fine arts—(example: posters, advertisements, portraits, cartoons, photographs)
- Folklore, folkways, and mythology—(examples: cooking, stories, customs)
- Physical or built environment and material culture (artifacts)—(example: houses, clothing, monuments)
Primary sources vs. secondary sources
Use of the term “primary sources,” as above, implies the existence of another type of source, and that is secondary sources. Whereas primary sources are the original documents, the by-products of history, secondary sources are a generation removed from the immediacy of primary sources. Secondary sources are created by examining the primary sources and producing a synthesis based on an interpretation of them. One writer has called primary sources “the ore from which history is made,” thus historians talk of “mining the sources” in their research to produce their interpretation of historical events (Danzer and Newman, 1996, p. 22).
The product of that mining may be an article published in a scholarly journal, a monograph (a book about a single topic—ex: women in the Civil War, the civil rights movement in Louisiana), a textbook, or a documentary. In a secondary source, an author has reviewed the primary sources relevant to his or her topic, synthesized the information gleaned from that research and checked out statements and opinions with other sources to verify and confirm, then produced his or her idea of how things were and why. To support his or her argument or interpretation, the historian will quote from the primary sources.
Why use primary sources?
(This section largely excerpted from the National Archives and Records Administration's website “History in the Raw”).
Examining primary sources sharpens students' analytical skills and makes history more meaningful to them. The idea that history is an agreed upon set of facts and dates packaged in a textbook, and usually, therefore, that it is boring and irrelevant to them, is an attitude about history that teachers encounter from students. Most students likely do not realize that there is debate about history, not so much about what happened in the past but what it means and what caused past events. Introducing primary sources into the classroom will make them think realize that past events, as evidenced in primary sources, lend themselves to interpretation. Consequently, they will become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature. Additionally, they will:
- come to view their textbook as only one historical interpretation and its author as an interpreter of evidence, not as a purveyor of truth;
- have the tools to weigh the significance of these sources against generalizations and statements made in the textbook;
- begin to understand that such generalizations represent an interpretation of past events, but not necessarily the only interpretation.
Primary sources force students to realize that any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective. The varying interpretations a group of students themselves will make of the same documents make them aware of the subjective nature of their conclusions. The disagreements among students in interpreting these documents are not unlike those among historians. Consequently, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills, not only in reference to the past but in analyzing and evaluating contemporary sources such as newspaper reports, television and radio programs, and advertising. By using primary sources, students learn to recognize how a point of view and bias affect evidence, what contradictions and other limitations exist within a given source, and to what extent sources are reliable. Essential among these skills is the ability to understand and make appropriate use of many sources of information. In our age of information overload, such a skill is a valuable one to have.
Through primary sources the students also directly touch the lives of people in the past and history is made real to students. It no longer is dates and facts in a textbook but a person's life. Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history is humanized through them. Using original sources, students touch the lives of the people about whom history is written. They participate in human emotions and in the values and attitudes of the past. These human expressions provide history with color and excitement and link students directly to its cast of characters. Additionally, using primary sources assists students to develop vocabulary, reading comprehension, and gain exposure to and decipher antiquated language and ways of expression
Tools for evaluating primary sources
The National Archives and Records Administration's Digital Classroom offers document analysis sheets for various types of primary sources, including written documents, photographs, posters, artifacts, sound recordings, maps, etc.
- Library of Congress, American Memory Project
A gateway to rich primary source materials relating to the history and culture of the United States. The site offers more than 7 million digital items from more than 100 historical collections. The site's “Learning Page” offers lessons, features, activities, and tips for using these collections in your classroom.
- Federal Agency Websites
President Clinton mandated that all federal agencies have a section on their web page targeted to students' to help them understand the various functions of government.
- Alabama Department of Archives and History
While the content focuses on Alabama history, the site offers model lesson plans that teachers from anywhere could adapt.
- Youth Source-Youth and Heritage Learning Source
Provides activity and unit plans to help teachers involve their students in heritage and
community-centered learning. For example, easy-to-use approaches to using
oral history, the built environment and streetscapes, primary documents and
historic photographs will be found here.
- Danzer, Gerald A.and Mark Newman. Tuning In: Primary Sources in the Teaching of History. World History Project, University of Chicago, 1991.
- Danzer, Gerald A.and Mark Newman.“Primary Sources in the Teaching of History,” in Bring History Alive! A Sourcebook for Teaching United States History, eds. K. Ankeney, R. Del Rio, G. Nash, D. Vigilante. Los Angeles: National Center for History in the Schools, 1996.