by Carol Fertig
In school, most students study history using only secondary sources—articles, reference books, and textbooks—all written at some point after the actual event. Secondary sources tend to interpret or analyze historical events.
Primary sources, on the other hand, were created during the time period being studied. They reflect the individual viewpoint of a participant or observer. Primary sources include autobiographies, diaries, e-mails, interviews, letters, minutes, news film footage, official records, photographs, raw research data, speeches, art, drama, music, novels, poetry, buildings, clothing, DNA, furniture, jewelry, pottery, etc. These sources enable the researcher to get as close as possible to what actually happened during an historical event or time period.
Today, the Internet provides access to a wealth of primary resources. In earlier years, one would have had to travel great distances to various libraries and museums to gain access to this information.
The American Library Association’s Reference and User Services Association has posted an article titled Using Primary Sources on the Web, which can be used as an exercise in critical thinking. It provides information on
Finding primary sources
Evaluating primary sources (including, among other things, understanding the purpose of the website and the credentials of the person who created the website)
Citing websites appropriately
Repositories of Primary Resources contains links to Internet sites for primary sources all over the world. Want to find a digitized photo of a street scene in Colorado in the mid-late 1800s? Do you want to find crime reports for the United States in 1935? Do you want to see an original score written by Beethoven? Do enough searching on this site, and you will find this information.
The Library of Congress is in the process of digitizing many of the important documents in American history. As of the writing of this blog entry, they have posted documents from 1763-1877.
The University of Technology in The Netherlands has assembled an extensive list of primary sources on voyages of discovery, including letters and reports written by explorers.
These are just some of the many sources for primary resources on the Internet. For a particular topic of interest to you or your students, do an Internet search using the subject of your search (e.g., Civil War women) plus the words “primary source.”
This blog post initially appeared on the Gifted Child Info Blog on April 1, 2011.