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Working with Primary Sources

What are primary sources and how are they different from secondary sources?

Primary sources are artifacts resulting from direct personal experience with a time or event. The benefit of using primary sources is that they provide a first-hand account of a person or event that can then provide evidence of that given historical era. Examples include diaries, art, autobiographies, interviews, letters, music, photographs, and speeches. Different from primary sources, secondary sources are artifacts describing an event written after the event with the benefit of hindsight. They account for events not personally or directly witnessed by the author. Secondary sources result from analyzing a past event based on primary or other secondary sources and are interpretations of the event by the author. Example secondary sources include textbooks, encyclopedias, biographies, monographs, and documentaries.

Are the items in this collection primary sources?

Yes. Southern Nevada: The Boomtown Years includes digitized images of over 1500 primary sources. Though some artifact descriptions may fall on the line between primary and secondary sources (e.g., newspapers), all artifacts in this collection fall into the category of primary sources because they are accounts of what was happening at the time Southern Nevada was booming with growth.

Why use primary sources?

Using primary sources enables students to experience history as historians experience it—like a puzzle with many pieces that make up the whole. Through studying primary sources, students begin to realize that there is not one truth to history. All historical events are experienced by people with different viewpoints and biases. Studying history from the perspective of primary sources allows students of history to think historically and create their own interpretations of the past. Through guided inquiry, students contextualize historical information through a cyclical question-answer process that corroborates evidence. They create hypotheses and analyze historical sources to develop their own interpretations of what happened historically.

How do I use primary sources in my classroom?

Analyzing Sources

To guide students through the process of analyzing primary sources, consider using primary source analysis sheets. For a thorough list of analysis sheets separated by media type, visit the University of Northern Colorado's Colorado Rural Partnership Analysis Tools webpage.

Additional primary source analysis sheets from the National Archives and Library of Congress assist in working with:

Some instructional methods are particularly amenable to working with primary source documents. Examples include use of inquiry, primary source sets, scavenger hunts, found poems, life-in-a-box activities, gallery walks, sort it out activities, reading maps in sections, and zooming-in to pictures.

Inquiry Questions

Instructional Strategy Defined: Students answer higher-level thinking questions requiring they engage in artifact analysis. The goal of historical inquiry is to have students work with primary sources to think historically — doing what historians do.

Primary Source Sets

Instructional Strategy Defined: Primary source sets are collections of primary source artifacts that, when presented as a group, enable students to engage in historical inquiry.

Scavenger Hunts

Instructional Strategy Described: Ask students to engage in a scavenger hunt where they simply seek the types of resources available in the collection(s). This activity may require independent searching, or scaffolded, linear searches with a particular end-goal.

Found Poems

Instructional Strategy Described: Have students work with a single teacher-selected primary source document. Students review the document highlighting words that are important to them. They then cut out twenty of those words (of their choosing) that are the most meaningful for them. They then make a poem by arranging these words into their own creation.

Life in a Box

Instructional Strategy Described: Create a packet of six artifacts (with the artifacts scaffolded leading from more to less obscure), numbering each from one to six. Pass around each artifact one time at a time. Have students try to determine the name of the person in the box in the least number of artifacts.

Gallery Walks

Instructional Strategy Described: Find a collection of relevant primary sources including pictures, maps, and other documents. Separate students into groups and provide each group with a different inquiry question. Have students move from source to source collecting data relating to their question. Upon completing the browsing process, each group should work independently to analyze findings and prepare a response to their question. After completing the responses, allow each group to read their inquiry question and response. After all groups complete their presentations, have students discuss whether they might dispute some of the conclusions based on data uncovered by either their group or another group.

Sort It Out

Instructional Strategy Described: Provide approximately ten artifacts and have students start with a question (e.g., “How have resources and materials changed the way we live and travel?”). Using that question, have students separate the artifacts into categories. Students must determine category names while fitting each artifact into their self-selected categories.

Map Sections

Instructional Strategy Described: Download several maps and print them out on large paper. Cut the maps into several sections and provide small groups with one section each of the map and a map analysis sheet. Hide map sections with essential information (e.g., title, date). Have students analyze their map section and then have groups find other groups who have sections from the same map. Combined groups should then work together to continue their analysis (identifying more than they were able to identify in their smaller groups). Upon exhausting information accessible in the joint groups, have groups find the remaining part of their maps in the hidden location (e.g., outside of the classroom) and do final observations using the entire map.


Instructional Strategy Described: Choose one primary source picture and slowly reveal different parts of the picture asking students what they can deduce during each "reveal." Encourage lower-level questioning at the beginning and more evaluative questions upon showing the entire picture. You may begin with an overarching inquiry question they will consider throughout the process.


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