How and Why to Use Primary Sources When Teaching History

It may sound like a cliché, but it’s true: Primary sources—from ancient Egypt to the Civil War through today—make history come alive. They enhance the teaching and learning of a social studies curriculum in many ways.

What Are Primary Sources?

The first step is to explain to students that primary sources are firsthand accounts created during a given time period by people with direct connections to the events described. They can be letters, diaries, photographs, videos, speeches, news reports, census data, maps, and more; they are the raw material of history. Secondary sources are accounts of events by people who were not connected to them, often synthesizing several accounts and offering an analysis. These may be nonfiction books, biographies, documentaries, reviews, essays, and magazine articles. 

The use of primary sources in social studies classrooms has been increasing in recent years, thanks to greater access to digitized collections, the inclusion of document-based questions on Advanced Placement exams, and other opportunities to analyze sources. For example, National History Day asks middle and high school students to choose a topic related to a specific theme, conduct research using primary sources, complete a project, and then compete at the regional, state, and national levels. The success of the musical Hamilton is likely also partially responsible for a renewed interest in taking a fresh look at the documents of history—and of asking whose story is being told, and by whom. 

Why Primary Sources Are Important to Learning

Using primary sources as part of your curriculum automatically turns a static lesson into an active-learning session as both teacher and student draw on their senses, memories, imaginations, and knowledge to understand the people who created those sources.

While using artifacts and documents enhances history lessons for all ages and in all subjects, the use of primary sources for U.S. students is probably most effective when studying the history of North America in Grades 5–12. There’s a wide variety of sources available, and the skills required for evaluating primary sources are acquired and practiced in those grades.

Here at HMH, we maintain an archive of correspondence with our authors and often bring out examples to study when we host student groups or others interested in learning more about us. To show you what can be gleaned from primary sources, let’s take a look at a few examples from our collection of letters with President Theodore Roosevelt. From 1916 to 1918, Houghton Mifflin was trying to persuade Roosevelt to write a book about patriotism. These efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, but the correspondence illuminates what we can learn by looking at real documents about people and their projects. In much the same way, you can analyze primary sources in your classroom. 

Analyzing Primary Sources: An Example

It all began on July 14, 1916, when Houghton Mifflin’s editor-in-chief of the Educational Division sent Roosevelt a letter, for which we have the carbon copy in our files:

How can you go about teaching with primary sources? A primary source document is an artifact, and you should have students examine not only what it says—or the content—but also what its physical characteristics can tell them about the time in which it was written.

You can note to students that several elements pop out to us about the appearance of this letter: Even though paperclips had recently been invented, Houghton Mifflin was still using straight pins to fasten pages together, so we can maybe infer that the company was frugal and using up their office supplies before getting new ones, or else they were old-fashioned. Onion skin paper is flimsy and easily torn or bent around the edges, particularly when stuck in a file folder, but it hasn’t decayed or degraded in more than 100 years, nor has the carbon print faded. (It might be interesting to point out to students who have probably never seen a carbon copy that the “Cc” line on their emails derives from this office practice.)

Looking at the content, it’s interesting to note the salutation—just Mr. Roosevelt, not President Roosevelt or Mr. President—making you wonder whether that was common practice. The first paragraph, where the editor-in-chief presents the need for a book on patriotism, makes several statements about patriotism during this time period—and the lack of teaching about it in schools—that are worth examining within the context of World War I, the presidential election of 1916, and the demographic makeup of the school population at the end of the Progressive Era. When analyzing a primary source like this one, it's also important to analyze the potential biases of the person who wrote it.

Theodore Roosevelt’s reply came about a week later:

President Theodore Roosevelt's letter in response to Houghton Mifflin.

The letter is on one piece of stationery, folded in half so that Page 1 is on the top right, with Page 4 on the top left, Page 2 on the bottom right, and Page 3 to its left. If you could feel it, you’d notice right away the weight of the paper as well as its creamy finish. The name of Roosevelt’s home—Sagamore Hill—is embossed in green at the top of Page 1. Again, there’s no indication that he had been president on the stationery, so we’re left to figure out whether that was modesty or whether it was typical for former presidents.

It’s interesting to see his handwriting and how he squeezes in his writing at the end to fit it all on the one page. You can explain to students that it doesn’t really matter whether you can read every single word—you can gather valuable insight into a writer’s state of mind through the corrections, the additions, the thickness of ink, and the way the letters are formed.

Roosevelt’s response is very different in style from the Houghton Mifflin letter, demonstrating that an individual person may have written it, whereas our company’s letter is more businesslike. It’s clear from the very start that Roosevelt is declining to write the book, but along the way he takes swipes at Charles Eliot, the author of the book that Houghton Mifflin had sent him with their letter; Woodrow Wilson; and the Atlantic Monthly. It would be interesting to have students use a letter like this to imagine what the writer’s character was like and compare it to contemporary accounts.

The rest of the correspondence consists of several letters written over the course of the next two years, with Houghton Mifflin finding new reasons to ask him to write the book again and Roosevelt’s letters becoming increasingly shorter as he finds new ways to say no. This correspondence is a good example of what primary sources can do in the history classroom: make the people of the past real, and their lives—or at least some small part of their lives—knowable and relatable. Primary sources are history unfiltered, and through them, students can engage with the past in ways that supplement and enhance their understanding of history and its relevance to today.

How to Find Primary Sources for Your Classroom

If you’re looking for ways to introduce primary sources to your students, the best places to start are your state or local historical society, your state archives, or your local public library. If you work in a town where there is a university, you might contact their archives or rare book room to see if they host student groups for a visit. 

There are also a lot of places on the web to view primary resources. Many organizations are digitizing their collections for a wider audience and to provide new and different voices to the narrative of history. The Library of Congress, the various museums of the Smithsonian, and The Digital Public Library of America have broad holdings and have put together collections on many topics for easy access by students and teachers. 

Primary source documents are the building blocks of history, and studying them allows students to draw their own conclusions about history, connect to a person or an event, and tell a story in their own way. 

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Want to further immerse your students in history? Learn more about the HMH Social Studies program for students in Grades 6–12.

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