Let the Voices of Primary Sources be Heard! PDF Print E-mail

Primary sources are "voices from the past"-material from the time that is being studied, not filtered or interpreted by others. Such sources include letters (personal or formal), photographs and drawings, diaries and journals, trial transcripts, newspapers, flyers and posters, reports, government documents and oral histories. Primary sources make history come alive, but more importantly, they distinguish a History Fair project from a mere "report." Students must find primary sources, critically "listen" to those voices, and form their own conclusions based on the evidence. The wider and deeper a student goes into primary sources the more she/he will grasp their subject and gain credibility as a historian.

Here is a handy visual reminder of the variety of primary sources:
Primary Sources: The "Stuff of History"


When should students start looking for and using primary sources? Right away, though at first students will want to concentrate on serious study of secondary sources so when they work deeply in the primary sources they know what to ask of these sources and have the context and background knowledge in which to make sense of the material. Eventually, primary sources should consume most of a student historian's time: it is the analysis and synthesis of all the primary sources to form and back up an argument that is the heart of the History Fair project. For students doing projects that depend heavily on visual evidence (documentaries and exhibits), they will want to especially focus on sources that will build a visually dynamic presentation.

Just because something is "firsthand" from the past, doesn't mean it is the truth-at the very least, it has a certain perspective, a particular purpose, and context that must be considered. For example, an eyewitness account of the Haymarket tragedy might differ if the source was a worker or a factory owner. Similarly, a newspaper article published by the Chicago Tribune in 1886 might differ significantly from an article printed in a newspaper sympathetic to labor. It is up to historians to explore different perspectives, analyze them, and then come to their own conclusion. Primary sources are only as good as the student historian who analyzes them.

These worksheets will help students learn how to analyze a primary source and "unpack" the information contained in them:

From: Gerald Danzer, A History Handbook for Student Research Projects (Springfield, Ill.: Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1991).

How to Analyze a Document (267KB)
How to Look at Old Maps (158KB)
How to Read Photographs (222KB)


The Digital Classroom at the National Archives offers worksheets on written documents, photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, sound recordings, and motion pictures: http://www.archives.gov/education/index.html

Where can students find primary sources?

  • Historical societies and museums
  • Libraries-remember periodicals
    School media center
    Local library
    Regional and central libraries
  • Organizations and businesses
  • At home
  • Internet
  • Special collections and archives

What is an archives or special collections?
Special collections and archives may be housed in libraries, historical societies, museums or corporations/organizations hold. They contain rare books or archival materials that are one of a kind, usually archives or manuscripts and papers.

Here is how librarians and archivists organize this unique material:

  • Manuscripts & Papers-from individuals; can contain anything a person or family collected: from unpublished writings (such as drafts), letters, and scrapbooks to theater programs.
    Example: the papers of Ben Burns
  • Archival Records-original documents from organizations
    Example: records of the Black Arts Theatre Ensemble

Because copies do not exist, these items do not circulate and special rules for handling apply. Students should plan to take notes-while some items can be photocopied or scanned, others will not. The archivist or special collections librarian makes the decision. Any one who wants to use materials from an archives will be required to fill out forms, use pencils only, often wear cotton gloves to hold materials, and follow other rules that don't apply in circulating libraries. An archivist has many roles: one of which is providing access to the material, but just as important is preserving the material so it is available to researchers far into the future. Therefore, he or she is as concerned about the treatment of the papers and records so that it stays in the same condition in which you received it AND the security of it. The rules and procedures they ask students to follow are the same they ask of adults.

Don't let the rules scare you off, however. Using material from an archival collection is rewarding itself, but it can also change the entire experience of doing History Fair-and may significantly impact the depth of a project's knowledge and analysis. Nothing beats the real thing!

Can students "google" their way through archival and special collections? Most of the material from archival collections will not be on the Internet but there are some ways in which students can begin to explore what is available. On-line exhibitions, lists of collections, and finding aids are appearing increasingly; students will find some sites listed on our Internet Guide; the Resource Guide will direct students to actual collections that may be visited.

Some special collections libraries or archives offer an on-line digital exhibition that display a particular collection or is a sampler of the material in the archives. Other archival holdings have been digitized such as the Haymarket and Chicago fire sites on the Chicago History Museum and the Hull House collection from UIC. Such material may not be accessible otherwise due to access policies for student researchers or may be too far away from Chicago.

Here is a sample of a digital exhibition of primary sources:

Usually, students will need to go to the actual archives--many institutions do not yet keep a full listing of their collections on their website. If the archives provides its mission, or even better, a descriptive list of what is in the collection then a researcher can judge whether or not it is worth contacting for more information.

Here is a sample of a list of collections:

Some collections are putting their FINDING AIDS on their website or have a descriptive list of their collections so students can figure out if it is worth going to visit or calling. Finding aids are organized lists of what is contained into a particular set of manuscripts or records. They provide a wealth of information: historical background, names of people or organizations to be found, how it is organized, how much material exists, and what is in each folder so a researcher can get a sense if the collection would be helpful. CMHEC's Internet Resources offers several local institutions that have finding aids on-line.

Here is a sample of a Finding Aid:

See how rich the sources are in a collection? In most cases, a researcher will need to go to the special collections library or archives to actually see and use the material.

Take the plunge!
Take some time exploring collections that list their holdings and give you complete finding aids, and if it seems relevant to your historical question or thesis, try using a collection in your History Fair paper. Visit an archives and talk to the archivist or librarian about your project. They may know of gems in collections that may not be obvious. Be sure to conduct some solid, basic research before going there and once there, and demonstrate maturity and a willingness to follow the rules.

Here is a high school student's essay on his experience using an archives to do a project on child labor:

Check out the CMHEC Resource Guide for local institutions and organizations that have special collections or archives and the CMHEC Internet Guide that link to collection's descriptions or finding aids on-line.

For another version about doing research, check out the National History Day's "Research Central" http://www.nhd.org/researchcentral.htm


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