The power of primary sources: primary sources aren't just about history. Their use can enhance learning in all content areas and for students of all ages. The widespread prevalence of digital primary sources makes a greater range available and accessible to all

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Date: November-December 2009
From: Multimedia & Internet@Schools(Vol. 16, Issue 6)
Publisher: Information Today, Inc.
Document Type: Article
Length: 1,985 words
Lexile Measure: 1200L

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WHAT'S a primary source? The response, "Diaries, letters, journals, oral interviews, historic documents, photos, and newspapers" is typical. But what about sheet music, drawings, maps, movies, passports, athletic event ticket stubs and statistics, campaign buttons, quilts, flyers, political cartoons, telegrams, blogs, YouTube videos, tweets, or cell phone messages? Whether it's a traditional print document or a Web 2.0 digital file, primary sources have the potential to foster an interactive classroom and deepen understanding. Primary sources have the power to do the following:

* Build awareness and knowledge

* Develop personal connections

* Enhance teaching and learning by engaging and motivating students

* Foster inquiry and critical thinking

* Support multiple strands of national and state information and technology literacy standards

* Appeal to multiple senses and many learning styles

Most states and the District of Columbia require the use of primary sources in content standards. Typically, they are aligned with social studies standards, but primary sources aren't just about history. Their use can enhance learning in all content areas and for students of all ages. The widespread prevalence of digital primary sources makes a greater range available and accessible to all. In this month's Media Center, we'll look at ways educators are using primary sources in classrooms and media centers. Instructional situations shared here range from brief teachable moments to longer instructional units.


Corey Fritz, a Wisconsin chemistry teacher, developed a lesson about the Atomic Age. "[It] uses archived primary source documents to analyze the impact of society and politics on the development of nuclear warfare," he says. "One resource is The Atomic Cafe, a powerful collection of newsreels and government propaganda videos surrounding the Cold War and nuclear program in America. The video, which has no narration or commentary, sequences original videos from the era."

Fritz also uses historical documents from the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum archives and Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, a Library of Congress collection which houses flyers about radium. "All are true collections of primary sources," says Fritz. The powerful weeklong instructional activity concludes with a written project that supports Wisconsin state science standards for 12th grade:

H.12.2 Evaluate proposed policy recommendations (local, state, and/or national) in science and technology for validity, evidence, reasoning, and implications, both short and long-term

H.12.3 Show how policy decisions in science depend on social values, ethics, beliefs, and time-frames as well as considerations of science and technology

"Primary sources are really exciting even from the point of view of a chemist or physicist," says science teacher Stacey Balbach, also from Wisconsin. "With the new accessibility of sources, the opportunities for teachers are endless. Really, you can build any type of multifaceted project that you want. The important thing is with every project that is implemented students will learn how to use technology, information, and all disciplines at the same time. Everything will be connected and true learning will take place."

Balbach uses digital archives of scientists' drawings and notebooks to teach students the importance of scientific observation and record keeping. "At the beginning of the year I work on building a scientific community and part of the community is journaling," she says. "I use Leonardo da Vinci's journal as a model for what you would find in a journal. The activity works great. Maybe the correspondence of 'old scientists' or investigations into alchemy would have made chemistry come alive for me when I was in school." She has plans to use Thomas Jefferson's drawings of a plow and Alexander Graham Bell's notebook.

Built in America, a Library of Congress collection, offers numerous possibilities for drafting, math, and physics teachers. Through photographs, drawings, and data, the collection documents accomplishments in architecture, engineering, and design ranging from bridges and mills to airports and factories. Designs span the eras of adobe houses to contemporary designs.


Photos are abundant in primary source collections. Photos stimulate all of the senses to foster critical thinking. In a "thin" photo analysis, students look for objects and describe what they see. In a "thick" analysis, students dig deeper with questions and analysis. The Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar collection is superlative for developing thick analysis skills. Maryland teacher Alicia Hall explained that, in teaching both the Japanese internment and Warsaw Ghetto centers in the past, she has always asked students to identify "normal" and "situational" activities in photos or written sources.

   I gave my students a picture to spark a journal
   entry from the perspective of a Jew living
   in the Warsaw Ghetto. It looks "normal"
   for a Seder except there are many people
   standing (not enough seats due to crowded
   living conditions), no elderly people and no
   children (either culled from the population
   by Nazis or died from malnutrition or disease).
   Normal activities in the Warsaw
   Ghetto included the education of children
   and religious services such as daily prayers,
   bar mitzvahs, and weddings. There was a
   rich cultural life as well with a circulating
   library and artistic performances.

   Situational activities in the same place/time
   would include smuggling food, and clandestine
   meetings of the Underground. Kashrut and
   other religious laws such as the Mikvah were
   modified or suspended. Students are often surprised
   by how "normal" people managed to
   keep their lives, especially the efforts of parents
   of small children to normalize daily life.

Hall also described a "Four Corners" activity:

   I made loaded statements about an image of
   the Romanov family. Students had little to no
   background knowledge about the Russian
   Revolution, but I made them pick a corner to
   stand in: "The Tsar does not care about our
   problems," "The Tsar would solve our problems
   if he only knew about them," "The Tsar
   is powerless to fix our problems," and "We
   don't need the Tsar to save us." Once they
   picked sides, they had to defend their position
   based on clues in the photograph. There
   was no "right" answer of course, but they
   started pulling out things they wouldn't have
   looked at before: "His wife's jewelry could
   have fed our whole village for the winter!" It
   was a lot of fun. Resources such as these
   would be a good way to spark a discussion
   with older students about the work of historians
   and archivists. The page about the
   provenance of the collection would also be of
   interest in historiographical discussions.

When teachers and media specialists share personal photos and memorabilia, they connect with students in new and exciting ways. Paula Parks, a fourth-grade teacher from Mississippi now teaching in a Department of Defense school in Germany, created a display representing "four generations of Avery women, who have gone on to become educated (most through great adversities) and had great influence on all members of my family." She says, "I am very proud of them and their accomplishments and hold them in my heart and memory eternally. The women in my family encouraged a love for education."

Parks noted that young students may not be aware of what life was like for African-Americans living in the South even in relatively recent years and may not be aware of slavery. She would ask her students these questions to stimulate discussion and greater understanding:

* What similarities do you recognize with these documents?

* What are some of the differences that you recognize with these documents?

* Can you tell anything about the personalities or character traits of the people in the photos?

* Look at each of the framed photographs and tell me something about what you see in the eyes!

Parks could also use her artifacts to introduce students to the context for historical fiction such as Abby Takes a Stand in the Scraps of Time series. In this book, after seeing an old menu tucked in the attic and hearing her grandmother's story, Abby learns about the days when a black child could not sit at the lunch counter. I myself used a personal photo of the Greensboro lunch counter now on display in the Smithsonian National Museum of American history along with an archived photo from the Library of Congress to introduce the book and its historical background to fourth graders. A natural extension would be using historical documents or newspapers from the era.

"I don't have time. This is all too difficult." We've all heard that. The classroom time crunch is always a concern. But primary sources can be powerful in small doses. It doesn't have to be difficult. Parks suggested an easy way to implement an activity requiring students to locate and use a document, photo, or other primary source in a presentation. "They would be required to add an original primary source and describe it with this project along with other information they research." Since she teaches younger students, an ideal resource is America's Library, a collection of primary sources and related activities presented in student-friendly format that makes it easy for younger students to efficiently access authentic sources.


The appropriate individual primary source can help us take advantage of a teachable moment. My students visited the National Eagle Center, only 35 miles from our school. I followed up with a short, teachable-moment lesson about eagles in American history. We looked at a photo of Old Abe, the mascot of a Wisconsin regiment in the Civil War, sheet music about the famed eagle, and the 1832 "Eagle Map of the United States." In this unique map, Florida becomes the eagle's claw and Maine its beak. Students found our location in the wing. These activities only take 10-15 minutes, but in small doses they can stimulate lively, question-filled discussions. They can work well for media specialists who are introducing resources and the research process to students.

"Mapophiles" of all ages can enjoy maps. Better yet, they can power up many instructional activities. A high school media specialist who wrote me loves an old map of the northeastern U.S., where she teaches. As part of her Primary Source of the Day promotion, she printed it out in multiple sections and kept it readily accessible in the media center. "Students and teachers had a good time piecing it together," she wrote. Maps are especially fun when we find unexpected or unusual ones. The "Map of Great Western Central City, 1887" depicts an imaginary place created as a Colorado town "where industry and commerce mingle peacefully with churches and garden plots." Maps such as this could be used in discussions about the American West or utopias. But you have to look closely at this particular map! Some of the buildings in Western Central City look suspiciously like the buildings in maps of real cities. Old maps are great fun, but of course they do not depict the reality we've come to expect with today's technology--another good teachable moment.

Geographical Fun: Being Humourous Outlines of Various Countries is my personal favorite in the unusual map category. In a series of caricature maps, the cartographer represents northern European countries in a design combining a map with cultural dress and images. The maps could be used with older students to foster a thoughtful discussion of cultural and geographical stereotypes from the 1800s and how they continue to exist or how they do not exist today. Carney's Series of Medical Charts Showing Location in the United States of ..., a Library of Congress collection showing pthisis, malaria, pneumonia, rheumatism, and typhoid fever, is interesting and could be used with a map of data about current epidemics and diseases, a powerful example for cultural geography and health classes.

Is your head spinning yet? The primary sources available in our digital age are incredible. The possibilities are endless. Now that the Library of Congress is starting to archive the internet, the explosion of information will be considerably bigger. Start small! It won't take you long to build up a repertoire of teaching ideas ranging from 15-minute activities to multiweek units of studies.


Abby Takes a Stand, Patricia McKissack and Gordon James,Viking, 2005.

America's Library, Library of Congress,

Ansel Adams's Photographs of Japanese-American Internment at Manzanar, Library of Congress American Memory Collection, anseladams.

The Atomic Cafe (1982);ASIN: B000060 MW1, Produced by Jayne Loader and Kevin Rafferty for the New Video Group.

Built in America, Library of Congress American Memory Collection,

Carney's Series of Medical Charts Showing Location in the United States of ..., Library of Congress American Memory Map Collection, (NUMBER+@band(g3701em+gct00012)).

The Eagle Map of the United States, Library of Congress American Memory Map Collection, gmd:@field(NUMBER+@band(g3700+np000151)).

Geographical Fun: Being Humourous Outlines of Various Countries,With an Introduction and Descriptive Lines, Library of Congress American Memory Map Collection, gmd:@field(NUMBER+@band(g5701am+gct00011)).

Harry S.Truman Library and Museum,

Holocaust Survivors and Remembrance Project,

Map of Great Western Central City, Library of Congress American Memory Map Collection, (NUMBER+@band(g9930+pm000570)).

"Old Abe the Battle Eagle," song and chorus poetry by L. J. Bates, Library of Congress,The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana, scsmbib:@field(DOCID+@lit(scsm000174)).

"Teaching Inquiry With Primary Sources,"

Traveling Culture: Circuit Chautauqua in the Twentieth Century, Library of Congress American Memory Collection,

Mary Alice Anderson

Lead Media Specialist

Winona Area Public Schools

Winona, Minn.

Mary Alice Anderson is a member of the Library of Congress TPS Direct Professional Development Review Committee; she is available as a workshop presenter on primary sources and other topics. She is the lead media specialist for Winona Area Public Schools in Minnesota and an online adjunct instructor with the Online Professional Development for Educators Program in the School of Education at University of Wisconsin-Stout, where she teaches a course in using primary sources ( and another titled Innovations and Opportunities for Media Specialists ( She received Top Online Educator recognition from SurfAcquarium. Visit Mary Alice's website at and her blog at Email her at

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A211806240