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"Columbus taking possession of the new country," 1893

What Makes a Primary Source a Primary Source?

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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!”

Painting of Pilgrims and Native Americans sharing a meal.
“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?

Comments (28)

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

  4. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.

  9. Very helpful. I’ve taught my students to focus on the timeframe under study in defining primary v. secondary sources, but then we’ve been confused by some of the other definitions and exercises out there. The idea of focus on when an item would be considered primary fits well.

  10. Is a primary source, which is published in a textbook still a primary source??

  11. Great question, Carol! generally, we answer that the content remains “primary” whatever the container. Of course, there’s some loss of information (and engagement!), the farther the content travels from its original form. However, we hear legitimate debate on that, too…and along those lines, we’d love to hear thoughts from our readers!

  12. Are excerpts in a textbook considered as a primary source?

    • Interesting question! is the excerpt from an item that would be considered a primary source?

  13. Thanks for the simple article to use with my students as “one more tool” to clarify primary vs. secondary sources. They frequently debate this dichotomy, based on when a source was created. This article will help reinforce the idea that it’s not only “created by someone who was there” but also “at the time” and to help them understand that any given source can be primary in some circumstances and secondary in other circumstances.

  14. This article and the sites are vey informative and helpful. I used one of the teaching kits with my students to teach about the Underground Railroad. It was excellent. I also used the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence in my unit on freedom. The students expressed their understanding of their rights and their feelings on freedoms in the United States. I look forward to more critical thinking discussions in the future.

  15. I used the kits for a unit on the Underground Railroad. I loved this article and the videos on discriminating what is a primary and what is a second source. I utilized the Bill of Rights and the original Declaration of Independence when I implemented my unit on freedom. I look forward to more resources to utilize in my classroom.

  16. Interesting! I learned so much more about primary sources just reading this article. I learned that a particular item could be a primary source depending on the time period studied.

  17. I think I have a better understanding of a primary and secondary source. Primary source is a first hand account: handwritten letters from Modjeska Monteith Simkins, an African-American public health reform, social reform and the Civil Rights leader in South Carolina. Previously, my idea of the primary source was unclear. The article provided a lot of good information as well as a good strategy to used to discuss ideas and concepts.

  18. Using primary sources teaching visual arts will include interviews of the artists if they are alive, mostly audio visuals to study also the body language and the reactions during the interview, also seeing the explanation of the how and why the art is made, from the artist, transmit the certainty of learning from the primary source. In the case of 18 and 19 century artists I always compare what the art history books said and an analysis of the artwork itself, trying to find the coincidences between both sources.

  19. I try to incorporate at least one or two primary sources in each unit we study. The Library of Congress has a treasure trove of such sources. I usually explain to my student that a primary source is one which presents a first-hand account or was owned, worn, drawn, spoken or written by the subject. If it was owned, worn, drawn, spoken or written after the fact by another person it is then a secondary source.

  20. Love this short article! It helps me by giving a good example of how one source can be used as a primary source in one context but not another.

  21. Thank you for this excellent blog post. Context matters. An artifact can be either a primary source or a secondary source depending on the context. It would be interesting to present students with an artifact and have them describe the conditions upon which it would be a primary source or perhaps secondary source.

  22. Loved the article and the comments. Gained a lot of new ideas on how to bring this concept to my students in ways that will help them better understand the difference between primary and secondary sources. Thank you everyone, for sharing your insights!

  23. A good conversation starter. I think the piece leaves the question open for high-level classroom discourse.

  24. Great article. I have to agree with others about this being an excellent idea for a lesson plan.

  25. Great article. I love the idea of flipping the question to when instead of if

  26. I am very intrigued by this discussion and saddened that I could not have attended the Teacher’s Institute that the Library of Congress conducted. In any case, this discussion points to the generational perspective of not just what is taught or how, but when. When I learned about primary and secondary sources, I was merely concerned with identification. As I became a teacher, I learned to analyze the identification and put it in context according to use and age (historical perspective). Students won’t do that unless as teachers we stress that identification of whether the source is primary or secondary is not enough. A thorough examination and analysis must be conducted to determine whether a primary source becomes secondary source and vice versa. This helps students transfer and transform their learning from first tier to high yield tier status learning.

  27. This is going to change the way I teach primary sources!

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