Excerpts from
Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives
National Archives and Records Administration and National Council for the Social Studies
Washington, D.C.


Documents—reports, maps, photographs, letters, drawings, and memoirs—created those who participated in or witnessed the events of the past tell us something that even the best written article or book cannot convey. The use of primary sources exposes students to important historical concepts. First, students become aware that all written history reflects an author's interpretation of past events. Therefore, as students read a historical account, they can recognize its subjective nature. Second, through primary sources the students directly touch the lives of people in the past. Further, as students use primary sources, they develop important analytical skills.

To many students, history is seen as a series of facts, dates, and events usually packaged as a textbook. The use of primary sources can change this view. As students use primary sources, they begin to view their textbook as only one historical interpretation and its author as an interpreter of evidence, not as a purveyor of truth. For example, as students read personal letters from distressed farmers to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as they look at WPA administrators' reports on economic conditions in Pennsylvania and Oregon, or as they listen to recordings of government-produced radio dramas, they weigh the significance of these sources against such generalizations as: "The most urgent task that Roosevelt faced when he took office was to provide food, clothing, and shelter for millions of jobless, hungry, cold, despairing Americans."1 Students begin to understand that such generalizations represent an interpretation of past events, but not necessarily the only interpretation. They become aware that the text has a point of view that does not make it incorrect but that does render it subject to question. Primary Sources force students to realize that any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially, subjective.

As students read eyewitness accounts of events at Little Big Horn or letters to Congressmen expressing concern about women's suffrage, or look at photographs from the Civil War and then attempt to summarize their findings, they become aware of the subjective nature of their conclusions. The disagreements among students in interpreting these documents are not unlike those among historians. Through primary sources students confront two essential facts in studying history. First, the record of historical events reflects the personal, social, political, or economic points of view of the participants. Second, students bring to the sources their own biases, created by their own personal situations and the social environments in which they live. As students use these sources, they realize that history exists through interpretation—and tentative interpretation at that.

Primary sources fascinate students because they are real and they are personal; history is humanized through them. Using original sources, students touch the lives of the people about whom history is written. They participate in human emotions and in the values and attitudes of the past. By reading a series of public opinion surveys from World War II, for example, students confront the language of the person interviewed and his or her fears about shortages, as well as the interviewer's reactions recorded after the interview. These human expressions provide history with color and excitement and link students directly to its cast of characters.

Interpreting historical sources helps students to analyze and evaluate contemporary sources—newspaper reports, television and radio programs, and advertising. D.J. Steel and L. Taylor state it well in Family History in Schools: "[History] trains the child in gathering, sifting and evaluation of evidence. Such a training was never more necessary than in a society in which mass media can make children and adults the passive recipients of the carefully manipulated thought-packed politicians, advertisers, planners and bureaucrats."2 By using primary sources, students learn to recognize how a point of view and a bias affect evidence, what contradictions and other limitations exist within a given source, and to what extent sources are reliable. Essential among these skills is the ability to understand and make appropriate use of many sources of information. Development of these skills is important not only to historical research but also to a citizenship where people are able to evaluate the information needed to maintain a free society.

Perhaps best of all, by using primary sources students will participate in the process of history. They will debate with teachers and classmates about the interpretation of the sources. They will challenge others' conclusions and seek out evidence to support their own. The classroom will become a lively arena in which students can test and apply important analytical skills.

Primary Sources and Where To Find Them: Suggestions for Teachers

To introduce your students to primary sources, you might begin with materials that they themselves possess, such as birth certificates, social security cards, passports, or drivers' licenses. What do these sources tell us about the individuals and the society in which they live? How might these sources be used by historians? Consider how school, employment, medical, and family records could be used to develop generalizations about twentieth-century student life.

Beyond personal records, there are a variety of other sources available. Where can you locate documentation on your neighborhood or community? Your sources can be both governmental and private: Federal census figures, newspapers, local government files, personal diaries, and interviews with longtime residents. In most cities and towns, local historical groups, preservation societies, and museums serve as excellent starting points for classes locating documentary materials about local communities. On the state level, historical societies, archives, and museums are valuable depositories for useful primary materials. Many of these agencies offer specific programs for high school students, and many would welcome suggestions for joint projects.

The Education Branch of the National Archives promotes teaching with primary sources in a variety of ways. Through "Teaching with Documents" (formerly called "Document of the Month"), a regular feature in Social Education, it provides source materials from the National Archives with suggestions for using these documents in the classroom.

Through a series of units, the Education Branch also offers classroom teaching materials to supplement secondary-level social studies curriculums. Each of these units includes from 35 to 50 reproductions of documents from the National Archives and a teacher's guide containing suggested teaching activities. Titles in this series are The Civil War: Soldiers and Civilians; The Progressive Years, 1889-1917; World War I: The Home Front; The 1920s; The Great Depression and New Deal; World War II: The Home Front; The Constitution; Evolution of a Government; The Truman Years: 1945-1953; Peace and Prosperity: 1953-1961; and The Bill of Rights: Evolution of Personal Liberties.

To further assist you in developing your own materials from National Archives sources, the Education Branch offers an annual summer workshop: "Primary Teaching: Original Documents and Classroom Strategies." In this eight-day workshop, teachers, using National Archives material, develop units of their own choosing and design. Some of the units developed by teachers in past workshops have included a study of presidential entertaining as a ceremony, a creative writing lesson using letters from farmers to President Roosevelt during the 1930s, and a look at military discipline during the War of 1812. Before attending the workshop, teachers select topics about which appropriate materials can be located in the National Archives. During the workshop, participants review and select documents and create their own classroom approaches to them. For information on these programs, write Education Branch, Office of Public Programs, National Archives, Washington, DC 20408, or call 202-501-6729.

You need not take a course to use primary sources in your classroom, however. You can collect them around a topic; or, better yet, you can ask students to find them; or, in the case of oral histories, you can create them. The returns in terms of skills development are great, and your students will begin to sense the exciting and changing nature of history.

This introduction was adapted from an article written by Mary Alexander, CeCe Byers, and Elsie Freeman.

1Lewis Paul Todd and Merle Curti, Rise of the American Nation (New York, 1966), p.667.

2D.J. Steel and L. Taylor, Family History in Schools (London, 1973), p.2.

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