The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources

What’s Wrong with Primary Sources?

Last week at the request of one of my colleagues at the Library of Congress, I compiled a list of organizations and individuals who regularly tweet about primary sources. Just in case I had missed any, I searched Twitter for the keywords primary sources. Since I follow teachers and education organizations almost exclusively, I was surprised that nearly all the tweets about primary sources came from students. That’s a different world entirely!

One of the first hits was exactly what I had hoped to read from a student (a self-described history nerd):

Another tweet from an “overachiever” made me chuckle:

Aside from those two tweets, however, other student tweets about primary sources made me:

  1. Drop my jaw at the language.
  2. Scratch my head at what the teacher could possibly have been thinking.
  3. Want to help every student who was struggling.
  4. Want to shake any teacher who throws students to the primary source wolves.

First, there were the “huh?” tweets that indicated lack of direction, lack of training in how to search and find relevant primary sources, and yes, lack of attention on the part of one student:

Some of the tweets from students were actually quite positive, or at least enterprising:

Unfortunately, by far the majority demonstrated deep frustration at the number of “required” primary sources and the near impossibility of finding them without the necessary guidance. Not to mention an understanding of the “why” of primary sources. I love primary source sets as much as any history or social studies teacher, but have these students learned how to analyze even a single primary source? I wonder.

And tell me truthfully, is this a reasonable assignment?

One student wondered how in the world (not the language she used) she was supposed to find primary sources about Russia IN ENGLISH. I’m on her side.

I know I cannot change every student’s attitude toward primary sources, but I do feel inspired to renew my efforts to work with teachers through professional development workshops and other venues. There’s so much to be learned even from this small sampling of student tweets, starting with the WHY of them all! I’d love to read your comments. Why do you think students end up hating primary sources? What can we do about it?

Finally, I leave you with this cute but oh-so-resigned tweet about primary sources:


One Response to “What’s Wrong with Primary Sources?”

  1. Wendy says:

    What a wonderful peek into our students’ minds — thanks for both the research and the analysis, Mary.

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