National Council for the Social Studies Community Network
The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students 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. Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills.
To many students, history is seen as a series of facts, dates, and events usually packaged as a textbook. The use of primary sources can change this view. As students use primary sources they begin to view their textbook as only one historical interpretation and its author as an interpreter of evidence, not as a purveyor of truth. For example, as students read personal letters from distressed farmers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they look at WPA administrators' reports on economic conditions in Pennsylvania and Oregon, or as they listen to recordings of government-produced radio dramas, they weigh the significance of these sources against such generalizations as that provided by Todd and Curti: "The most urgent task that Roosevelt faced when he took office was to provide food, clothing, and shelter for millions of jobless, hungry, cold, despairing Americans." Students begin to understand that such generalizations represent an interpretation of past events, but not necessarily the only interpretation. They become aware that the text has a point of view that does not make it incorrect but that does render it subject to question. Primary sources force students to realize that any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective.
Interpreting historical sources helps students to analyze and evaluate contemporary sources--newspaper reports, television and radio programs, and advertising. By using primary sources, students learn to recognize how a point of view and a 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. Development of these skills is important not only to historical research but also to a citizenship where people are able to evaluate the information needed to maintain a free society.
Perhaps best of all, by using primary sources, students will participate in the process of history. They will debate with teachers and classmates about the interpretation of the sources. They will challenge others' conclusions and seek out evidence to support their own. The classroom will become a lively arena in which students test and apply important analytical skills.
Primary Sources and Where to Find Them: Suggestions for Teachers
To introduce your students to primary sources, you might begin with materials that they themselves possess, such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, or drivers' licenses. What do these sources tell us about the individuals and the society in which they live? How might these sources be used by historians? Consider how school, employment, medical, and family records could be used to develop generalizations about twentieth-century student life.
Beyond personal records, there are a variety of other sources available. Where can you locate documentation on your neighborhood or community? Your sources can be both governmental and private: Federal census figures, newspapers, local government files, personal diaries, and interviews with longtime residents. In most cities and towns, local historical groups, preservation societies, and museums serve as excellent starting points for classes locating documentary materials about local communities. On the state level, historical societies, archives, and museums are valuable depositories for useful primary materials. Many of these agencies offer specific programs for high school students, and many would welcome suggestions for joint projects.