Primary Sources: Is Seeing Always Believing?

This post includes contributions from the Library’s Cheryl Lederle and Stephen Wesson.

Is a primary source always the genuine article?

Primary sources are original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. We know that primary sources can show a certain point of view or a certain perception about an event. But students may not think about the reasons why a particular primary source was created, or what the audience at the time expected of it. For some primary sources, it’s worth asking whether their creators ever intended them to be taken as the literal truth.

Show your students these two films on the San Francisco earthquake: San Francisco Earthquake and Fire April 18, 1906  and San Francisco Disaster May 19, 1906.

San Francisco Disaster

San Francisco Earthquake and Fire

Encourage them to use the Primary Source Analysis Tool to keep track of their observations, reflections, and questions. You may select questions from the Teacher’s Guide: Analyzing Motion Pictures to focus and deepen their analysis.

What differences and similarities do they see with the films? Ask them which film they think provides a more accurate depiction of what was happening after the San Francisco earthquake. What helped them to decide which film is more accurate?

Students may recognize that one of the films is a staged re-creation of the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake. What clues are there to indicate which film is an actuality and which was re-created later? Why is it important to be able to identify when a film is a reenactment of a scene?

Ask them why they think someone would have created such a film. Do they think an audience at the time would have mistaken the reenactment for the actual event? You might challenge your students to think about reenactments that they’ve watched in current media, and to list the reasons someone might watch something that they know is not an actual film of the event.

Interested in exploring other reenactments of historic events? Use the search box on the Library’s home page to search for “historical reenactments”or “trick films” and use the pull down menu to limit your search to film and video.

Leave us a comment about how your students use the lessons from this activity when examining other primary sources.

One Comment

  1. Melissa
    January 7, 2014 at 4:14 pm

    I think this is a great point to make, that many students may be fooled by. Many times there are reenactments made, that people believe are videos of the actual event occurring. I do not think that students give much thought to what the differences between reenactments and actual video footage may be, or how the two types of videos could differ in the message they deliver.

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