Why Use Primary Sources?

Primary sources provide a window into the past—unfiltered access to the record of artistic, social, scientific and political thought and achievement during the specific period under study, produced by people who lived during that period.
Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.

1. Engage students

  • Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events.
  • Because primary sources are snippets of history, they encourage students to seek additional evidence through research.
  • First-person accounts of events helps make them more real, fostering active reading and response.

2. Develop critical thinking skills

  • Many state standards support teaching with primary sources, which require students to be both critical and analytical as they read and examine documents and objects.
  • Primary sources are often incomplete and have little context. Students must use prior knowledge and work with multiple primary sources to find patterns.
  • In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to questioning and making inferences about the materials.
  • Questions of creator bias, purpose, and point of view may challenge students’ assumptions.

3. Construct knowledge

  • Inquiry into primary sources encourages students to wrestle with contradictions and compare multiple sources that represent differing points of view, confronting the complexity of the past.
  • Students construct knowledge as they form reasoned conclusions, base their conclusions on evidence, and connect primary sources to the context in which they were created, synthesizing information from multiple sources.
  • Integrating what they glean from comparing primary sources with what they already know, and what they learn from research, allows students to construct content knowledge and deepen understanding.

Docs Teach

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Find and create interactive learning activities with primary source documents that promote historical thinking skills.

National Archives: Finding Primary Sources
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Getting Started With Primary Resources in the Classroom
Lesson Plans
Pennsylvania State Archives, Bureau of Archives and History, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
(John F. Hartranft Papers, 1853-1897 in Record Group 393, Army Continental Commands, U.S., 1821-1920 (1817-1940))
State Archivist

Bureau of Archives and History
350 North Street
Harrisburg, PA 17120-0090
Telephone: (717) 783-3281

Collection Description: http://www.phmc.state.pa.us/

Library of Congress:
American Memory
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American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.
Library of Congress: Shortcuts for Finding Primary Resources

Smithsonian Source
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This website reflects the work of several groups of teachers who conducted research at the Smithsonian and other national historical organizations. For this reason, some of the primary sources included in Smithsonian Source are not from the Smithsonian collections. Teachers also chose the historical topics on the site, and these categories reflect their curricula rather than the terminology or organizational methods of the Smithsonian Institution.
  • Teaching with Primary Resources
  • Historical Topics
  • Primary Source Search

York University Resources
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Awesome Stories


"AwesomeStories is a gathering place of primary-source information. Its purpose - since the site was first launched in 1999 - is to help educators and individuals find original sources, located at national archives, libraries, universities, museums, historical societies and government-created web sites.

AwesomeStories is about primary sources. The stories exist as a way to place original materials in context and to hold those links together in an interesting, cohesive way (thereby encouraging people to look at them). It is a totally different kind of web site in that its purpose is to place primary sources at the forefront - not the opinions of a writer. Its objective is to take the site's users to places where those primary sources are located.

This educational, curriculum-support teaching/learning tool is also designed to support state and national standards. Each story on the site links to online primary-source materials which are positioned in context to enhance reading comprehension, understanding and enjoyment."