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Definitions: Primary Sources

bikeA primary source is a piece of information created from direct experience and often used for understanding history. These sources include actual records and artifacts that have survived from the past such as diaries, letters, photographs, articles of clothing, or coins.

The photo on the right was taken about 100 years ago at the turn of the century. It shows my great, great aunt, Laura May Wilson with her bike (click photo to enlarge).

Primary sources are created by people who witnessed or participated in an event and recorded it in some way. They also include any informational item created in the past such as a newspaper advertisement from the 1940s, political cartoon from the 1920s, or recipe from the 1800s.

Try the Exploring Primary Source Materials Flash tutorial to test your knowledge. Then explore the rest of this page. Finally, be sure to check the related pages:

Primary Resource Use

Laura's WeddingPrimary resources provide interesting insights into people and places. The key to effective use of primary resources is careful observation and interpretation. Many times a primary source only provides part of a larger story. By examining and comparing the information from many of these resources, it's possible to gain a better understanding of the people, places, and technologies of the past.

The photograph on the left shows Laura May Wilson on her wedding day. Through using documents such as a Certificate of Marriage (below), I can learn more about this event. For example, she was married on March 14, 1917 in Coon Rapids, Carroll County, Iowa. From this document, I also know that her two sisters Hazel and Rhoda witnessed the marriage.

Laura Wilson Anderson
(Click image to enlarge.)

Exploring primary documents is like a treasure hunt. You often have to go many places to collect materials including the websites, libraries, museums, government agencies, and historical societies. You may create your own documents by interviewing family members. Keep in mind that primary sources also include audio tapes, videos, and artifacts.

Digital Reproductions. Today, many people are using digital reproductions of original materials. Reading a scanned copy of the marriage certificate yields similar information to the original. On the other hand, it doesn't allow you to see the reverse side of the sheet unless that side is scanned also. In other words, your exploration may be incomplete when examining online archives. Some people also miss the smell and touch of an original item.Learn more at our Digital Reproductions page.

Digital Transcriptions. When reading a letter, journal, or historical document, it's often easier to read a transcription rather than the original written version. However keep in mind that it's possible to lose some of the writer's intent when you don't see the original hand writing, emphasis, or formatting.

Learn more at our Digital Transcriptions page.

Many people like to use a combination of digital reproductions and transcriptions when examining primary sources.

Analyzing Primary Sources. When examining a primary resource, create a list of the facts that you identify. Then, be sure you verify these facts using at least two other sources. Keep in mind that the best sources are closest to the actual event. For example, examine the death certificate for Laura Anderson (below). This document would be more reliable than a newspaper account of her death.

Certificate of Death
(Click image to enlarge and view entire document.)

It's important to examine primary sources carefully because they may be copies, reproductions, or duplicates rather than original materials. The key is to determine whether the item is authentic and accurate.

birth registrationClick the document on the right to see a close-up version of this Certification of Birth Registration.

If you read carefully, you'll notice that this is not the original birth certificate that was generated when my aunt Laura was born in 1876. This document from June 30, 1953 certifies that according to records on file, Laura was born January 23, 1876. As such, it could contain different information than the original birth certificate such as typos and misspellings.

Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. These descriptions come from combining accounts and ideas from several primary resources.

Primary Sources on the Web

One of the most exciting aspects of the Internet is the ability to share primary source documents. From personal letters and diaries to famous treaties and photographs, the Web provides space for an endless virtual archive. Many of these materials can be found in well-known online locations such as the Library of Congress or National Archives. However the power of Internet is the ability to reach all areas of the globe from libraries on the other side of the world to local historical museums and personal collections.

If you're interested in specific people, some of the best resources are subscription services such as Ancestry.com. For example, I did a search for Laura May Wilson and found many resources. I was able to locate a family tree; birth, death, and marriage information; and census data.

I was able to locate the census records for my great aunt in the census starting in 1880 when she was four years old.

I was able to locate the census records for my great aunt in the census starting in 1880 when she was four years old.

(Screens from Ancestry.com)

The global nature of the Internet allows virtual explorers to collect primary source materials that represent a wide range of media and perspectives. However with this access comes tremendous responsibility. It is essential that Internet users understand the power of information and carefully analyze and interpret materials being sensitive to perspective, context, accuracy, and other factors that impact our understanding of time and place.

From e-mail and e-books to blogs and forums, many of today's primary source materials are being produced electronically. Most of these communications will never be shared in a paper format. There are pros and cons to this shift in materials production. The advantages include ease of sharing and distribution, however the disadvantages include the frequent destruction of archived works. For example, few people keep drafts of documents or imperfect photographs.

Primary sources are generally unpublished materials such as diaries, journals, letters, or eyewitness accounts. They would also include published materials that are transcriptions or reproductions of original materials or reported events such as newspaper accounts.

Many of the most interesting primary sources are anecdotes of events or eyewitness accounts. In Stories of the Ice Storm five youth describe their experiences during the 1998 ice storm.

Learn More

American Memory: Library of Congress
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/
There are many lessons in the Learning Page.

Artifact and Analysis: A Teachers Guide to Interpreting Objects and Writing History
http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/idealabs/ap/index.htm
Strategies for incorporating historical artifacts into the classroom.

ArtsEdge
http://artsedge.kennedy-center.org/educators.aspx
Explore lessons associated with the arts.

Digital Archives and Using Primary Sources on the Web
http://www.ala.org/ala/mgrps/divs/rusa/sections/history/resources/pubs/usingprimarysources/index.cfm
Ideas for using primary resources.

Digital Classroom from the National Archives

Document Analysis Worksheets from National Archives
http://www.archives.gov/education/lessons/worksheets/
Great worksheets for different types of historical documents, audios, and videos.

Do History
http://www.dohistory.org/
Learn to piece together the past from fragments that have survived. Explore an example, then create your own.

Documenting the American South: Classroom Resources
http://docsouth.unc.edu/classroom/lessonplans/lessonplan_titles.html
Lesson plans provide wonderful resources to exploring the primary source materials. The lessons are from NC Learn.

Edsitement Lesson Plans
Links to lots of lessons based on historical materials. Search for topics.

Educators and Students from National Archives
http://www.archives.gov/education/index.html
Digital Classroom, the National Archives' gateway for resources about primary sources, activities and training for educators and students.

Historian's Toolbox:
http://guides.library.fullerton.edu/historians_toolbox/sitemap.htm
Provides tutorials and resources for using primary sources.

History Matters
http://historymatters.gmu.edu/
Lots of lesson and teaching ideas for working with primary resources. Explores students as historians.

Introduction to Primary and Secondary Sources from Columbia River Basin Ethnic History
http://www.vancouver.wsu.edu/crbeha/tutorial.htm
Great resources for using different types of primary sources.

K-12 CiESE Online Primary Source Classroom Projects
http://www.k12science.org/primarysourceproj.html
Projects such as historical treasure chests, movie in the making, and population growth.

Library and Archives Canada
http://www.collectionscanada.ca/education/index-e.html
Many lessons and projects:

National Park Service

Noodle Tools: Turn of the Century Child
http://www.noodletools.com/debbie/projects/20c/turn/teach/resource.html
Links to digital collections and resources for children.

Ontario History Quest
http://ohq.tpl.toronto.on.ca/
Exploring Ontario history through original letters, diaries, pictures and other documents. Contains great resources (Intrductory Activities) on understanding primary and secondary sources for Grade 7, Grade 8, Grade 10, Grade 12. Also check the WebQuests for Grade 7, Grade 8, Grade 10, and Grade 12.

Our Roots: Canada's Local Histories Online
http://www.ourroots.ca/
Many great projects:

Primary Sources Overview from Youth Source
http://www.youthsource.ab.ca/teacher_resources/ps_overview.html
Ideas for using and interpreting primary sources of all kinds.

Smithsonian
http://www.smithsonianeducation.org/educators/resource_library/resource_library.asp
Many resources and ideas for using primary documents. Be sure to check

Strategies with Primary Sources
http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/TeachingLib/Guides/PrimarySources.html
Background information on primary sources.

Teaching with Documents
http://www.edteck.com/dbq/
Document-based Questions and ideas for teaching.

Teaching with Historical Places
http://www.cr.nps.gov/nr/twhp/period.htm
Use real places in classroom activities.

Using Primary Sources
http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/turningpoints/primarysources.asp
Guidelines for using primary sources.

Locating Primary Sources

Repositories of Primary Sources Quality site
http://www.uidaho.edu/special-collections/Other.Repositories.html
Links to over 5000 websites with primary sources.

Learn more with the other materials in this section:

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