This guest post comes to us from Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.
Is a newspaper a primary source? A political cartoon? A map? A lithograph? Is an excerpt in a textbook a primary source? How about a digitized facsimile? All of these questions came up during the Library of Congress’ 2011 Summer Teacher Institutes.
“Primary sources” are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects 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. Students will most often work with primary sources that have been digitized.
The definition seems clear enough until we begin to label particular items as primary or secondary.
This image depicts Columbus landing on an island he named San Salvador, also known as Watling Island. Is it a primary source? That question provoked lively conversation among the teachers at the institutes.
The phrase “created at the time under study” provided a focus for their discussion and decision. The page about the item identifies this as a chromolithograph published in 1893, and Columbus is thought to have visited San Salvador in October of 1492. With those dates in mind, would this be a primary source for studying Columbus’ first encounter with land in the New World? It was created 400 years after the event, definitely not “at the time under study.”
How would the answer change if the picture were being used to study late nineteenth-century attitudes about the event? Most of the institute participants agreed that this picture would be a primary source in that context. They added that it would also be a primary source for the study of nineteenth century painting. At one point, I overheard a teacher remark “This is exactly the type of conversation you want in your classroom!”
Instead of asking whether a particular object is a primary source, it might be more useful to ask when that artifact would be a primary source.
When would this image be a primary source? When would it be a secondary source? Why is it important to know the difference? What could your students learn from studying this image?
Additional Library of Congress resources:
How would your students benefit from better understanding when a source is primary and when it is secondary? How have you introduced these concepts to your students?