What Makes a Primary Source a Primary Source?

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.

"Columbus taking possession of the new country," 1893

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!”

"The First Thanksgiving," 1932

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?

8 Comments

  1. Kathleen
    October 4, 2011 at 4:00 pm

    This is a great article that sparked a great conversation where I work. Thanks for posting. Is my blog comment a primary source? We love the questioning and inquiry theme of this post.

  2. Neva Reece
    October 4, 2011 at 6:02 pm

    Thank you for this commentary, however, there is so much more one could say, I wish it delved a bit more deeply. Time for someone to put together a lesson plan for our kids just on this topic! Do we have one yet?

  3. Jonathan
    October 5, 2011 at 1:11 pm

    I just taught this concept last week. This explanation works well. I may refer students to your post.

  4. MaryJane
    October 7, 2011 at 11:11 am

    I just finished teaching primary documents to 5 AP US History classes. Cheryl’s point about recognizing that a source can be a primary or secondary source according to the context is one I tried to get across to my students. We had several good discusions around that point by using examples like Cheryl’s. i hope I said it as clearly as she did.

  5. Dana Carmichael
    October 11, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    I like the idea of context for labeling a source primary or secondary. This may make it easier for students to understand why there are racial biases in Disney movies or fiction books of the day.

  6. Matt Cummings
    October 11, 2011 at 10:25 pm

    I appreciated reading this article, and will use this in my presentation to my fellow teachers on understanding a primary source. I would agree with Neva in that we teachers could really use a step-by-step process to both teach our students and teachers who are new to the site. I hope someone from LOC will create these soon. Great article!

  7. Carol Lee
    October 19, 2011 at 6:51 pm

    Out of curiosity, how would the following be classified? My Great-Great-Great-Grandmother, toward the end of her life was asked by her grandchildren to record all the stories she had told them of her life from leaving Ireland as 6-year-old in the early 1800s, through many other pioneer experiences including being one of the first homesteaders in Nebraska. So she did, and I must say it is fascinating reading. She had some exciting experiences, and of course some sad ones and she had a wonderful sense of humor. She’s telling her own life experiences, but at many years removed from the actual events.

  8. Trevor
    November 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm

    Great post! When is something a primary source is a great way to frame the question. I like to explain it not as a feature of an object but instead as a feature of the relationship between an object and a question. So, if you are interested in the history of journalism then newspapers are the best primary sources around. If you are interested in the history of how historians have discussed slavery then the articles that historians wrote about slavery are the best primary sources.

    In this case, instead of talking about primary and secondary sources you end up talking about the primacy of a given source for a given question.

    It is fun to stretch this even further. There is some amazing work in environmental history that will look at things like tree stumps as primary sources. In which case the stumps can tell us about things like the weather in the past, the way they are cut can tell us about technologies and the flow of commodities from the time the tree was cut. In short, the tree stump, like all objects has traces of things that happened in the past in and on it and the work of the historian is to read and interpret those traces and weigh the integrity, that is to weigh out exactly what the traces of the past in a given object or artifact are and to interpret and understand it in it’s context.

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