Encouraging Student-Generated Primary Sources During Historic Events

Lee Ann Potter, Director of Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives at the Library of Congress, wrote this post.

Last week, as the unprecedented events were unfolding at the U.S. Capitol, my eighteen year-old daughter drew my attention to a post on social media that she knew I would appreciate. Another high school student had posted a reaction and noted that, sometime in the future, other students might be asked to analyze that 2021 reaction as a primary source.

She was right—I was pleased that the student knew what a primary source was, recognized that they were creating one, and was aware that their experience could be valuable to future students trying to make sense of historic events. Of course, I did not jump in to comment on the thread—my daughter would have been mortified. But if I had, I would have complimented the student, and I might have even asked that they give a shout-out to their teacher, who may well be a regular reader of this blog.

Now is the perfect time to remind our students that they are eyewitnesses to history, that their observations and reflections are valuable. It is also a perfect time for us to encourage them to create primary sources that capture their experience, and time to remind them that primary sources come in a variety of media. Their social media posts, photographs, videos, poetry, songs, artwork, journal entries, and more, all count.

Screenshot: Photographs from New York on D-Day

Screenshot: Sep. 11, 2001 Documentary Project

If your students need inspiration, the Library of Congress holds extensive examples of eyewitness accounts created by individuals who lived through historic events as they unfolded. Those individuals’ voices, their perspectives, and their expressions remind all of us that historic events do not just happen.  But rather, they are experienced. They also remind us that because everyone’s experience is unique, the more accounts that exist, the more complete the historical record can be.

Select examples related to specific historic events include:

After the Day of Infamy

On December 8, 1941 (the day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor), Alan Lomax, then “assistant in charge” of the Archive of American Folk Song (now the American Folklife Center archive), sent a telegram to fieldworkers in ten different localities across the United States, asking them to collect “man-on-the-street” reactions of ordinary Americans to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the subsequent declaration of war by the United States. A second series of interviews, called “Dear Mr. President,” was recorded in January and February 1942. Both collections are included in this presentation.

Farm Security Administration – Office of War Information photograph collection (LOT 1777).

This collection of photographs was taken on D-Day, June 6, 1944, by photographers working for the Office of War Information in New York City.  Photographs show religious services and public reactions on the day U.S. troops landed in France (D-Day) and began the liberation of Europe.

September 11, 2001, Documentary Project

The September 11, 2001 Documentary Project captures the reactions, eyewitness accounts, and diverse opinions of Americans and others in the months that followed the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and United Airlines Flight 93. Patriotism and unity mixed with sadness, anger, and insecurity are common themes expressed in this online presentation of almost 200 audio and video interviews, 45 graphic items, and 21 written narratives.

A Teacher’s Memories of Congressman John Lewis

Rebecca Newland, a former Teacher in Residence and contributor to the Teachers Page blog and the Poetry and Literature Center blog reflects on her interactions with the late congressman John Lewis. She notes that by talking about Lewis and his work with young people, we can keep alive the spirit of compassion and non-violence he espoused.

Teaching Civic Ideals and the Writing Process using Primary Sources

The Rosa Parks Papers at the Library of Congress testify to her courage, humility, and depth. They also reflect how she inspired others. Evaluating those documents based on their historical context, word choice, and revisions can deepen students’ understanding of her life and impact on the civil rights movement.