The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

Primary Sources as Alternatives to Print Requirements

In his always thought-provoking, shake-up-the-status-quo way, Bud Hunt wrote a post last week suggesting that perhaps primary sources could replace print materials as a requirement in all research assignments. I agree with Bud that “print” sources have largely been replaced by online books, newspapers, magazines, etc., certainly in my own life if not in the classroom. However, I do not believe that a primary source “requirement” will necessarily solve the problem of lack of depth for those student researchers who pick the first hit in a Google search.

When would I absolutely expect primary sources to be included in research? Almost always. Why? Nearly every line of inquiry–scientific, historical, social, political–needs to establish the kind of historical context evidenced by primary sources. Here are two possible examples:

Immigration. How have attitudes changed or remained the same throughout American history? Rather than simply researching the current political debate regarding immigration, students build deeper understanding by viewing and analyzing Ellis Island films, anti-Chinese lyrics in sheet music, and even application materials for U. S. citizenship.

Water Rights. Who deserves to have access to water when the supply is limited? In researching this topic, students can study the Tennessee Valley Authority, legal decisions to divert the Colorado River to California fields, photographs of the Dust Bowl, and other historical decisions that affect today’s water supplies.

I’m a great believer in incorporating primary sources into nearly every research assignment, but only when it will add depth to the learning. As an end in itself, a primary source requirement seems a mere exercise in filling in the blanks without any connection to real learning. I’m delighted to see more and more emphasis on primary sources in revised content standards, but my fear is that primary sources will become one more item in a long checklist designed to prove that standards have been met.

Primary source learning becomes significant when students learn how to analyze sources and to pose further questions about their significance. Their questions should drive their research. Sometimes their questions will lead them to still more primary sources. The number does not matter. The way primary sources contribute to understanding does matter.

Work with primary sources also requires training and practice. As students build confidence in their analytical skills and in their ability to generate meaningful, researchable questions, they will start to incorporate more and more primary sources into their learning. Early questions can be remarkably simple, as in this early Library of Congress “Thinking about Primary Sources” guide or its revised version, the “Primary Source Analysis Tool,” along with this helpful explanation.

A side benefit of working with primary sources online is that often subject experts have given them a context by adding explanatory text, links, timelines, and other value-added, secondary source material. For example, compare this primary source with this primary source and its supporting material.The supplemental material leads young researchers to ask more questions and to seek more primary and secondary sources to fill in their knowledge gaps.

One of Bud’s blog comments asked how to locate primary sources online. In my next post, I’ll provide links to my favorite primary source collections as a starting point. There are also links to excellent primary source collections on the right side of this blog.

I do love Bud’s suggestion that primary sources might solve the problem of print vs. online, even with certain caveats. I’m ready to help educators take the next step by leading them to excellent collections, as well as analysis ideas to make primary sources useful and meaningful in every curricular area.

Literacy Test

The Americanese Wall, 1916 Cartoon

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division


2 Responses to “Primary Sources as Alternatives to Print Requirements”

  1. Mark Moran says:

    For three years, I’ve been developing a content Web site, findingDulcinea, that offers hundreds of Web Guides and thousands of articles and features that draw heavily on primary sources. And yet conversations with thousands of students over the years taught me that a battle to lure students away from the instant gratification of a search results page was not one I would soon win. So we created, which searches only our content and the 35,000 Web sites that we’ve ever referenced. Though it is powered by Google and relies on PageRank, we were able to adjust site priorities, and thus Library of Congress, and other primary source sites rank much more prominently than they do in Google, and outstanding content from University sites shows up on the first page. Students are happy with their instant results, and librarians are happy that students devote more mindshare to primary resources.

  2. The Primary Source Librarian says:

    Hi Mark,

    I’ve been meaning to take a look at findingDulcinea. Now I have an even better reason to do so! Thanks for the sharing this lead with my readers.


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