Teaching with Primary Sources

What is a primary source?

According to The Smithsonian, a primary source is “a document or object that was created by an individual or group as part of their daily lives” or “any original source of information that provides a direct, first‐person connection to a historical event.” Examples include birth certificates, photographs, diaries, letters, newspapers, clothing, art and decorative objects, as well as public records.

What is first-person testimony?

The written account or spoken reminiscences of a person who participated in an event are first-person testimonies. Examples include interviews, diaries, letters, photographs and drawings created to illustrate an event, as well as the court testimony of an eyewitness.

What are the benefits of using primary sources and first-person testimony to teach history?

According to The Library of Congress, the use of primary sources:

  • provides a window into the past through unfiltered access to the social and political thought of the time and place being studied.
  • helps students create a personal connection to events in the past and, in turn, fosters both a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events and a compassionate, humane regard for those who came before us.
  • encourages students to seek additional evidence through research; students can use prior knowledge and seek multiple sources to define patterns.
  • allows students to explore differing points of view, often directly confronting contradictions, misconceptions, and misrepresentations.

“Primary sources provide authentic materials for students to practice the skills required by the Common Core State Standards. Encouraging students to grapple with the raw materials of history, such as photographs, newspapers, film, audio files, government documents, and economic data, provides opportunities for them to practice critical thinking, analysis skills and inquiry.”

Primary Sources: The Heart of the Common Core State Standards
Richard Cairn, Library of Congress

Are there drawbacks to using primary sources and first-person accounts?

Primary sources, including the reminiscences presented here, can add to our understanding of a specific topic about which little is known or that otherwise lacks documentation (in this case, the experience of women during The California Gold Rush). Still, some first-person accounts are simply anecdotal and entertaining, detailing experiences that are unique to an individual without making a meaningful contribution to the study of history. Some may not be completely accurate since memory is fallible, while others may be influenced by a cultural bias or self-serving motives.

The Association of Pioneer Women of California included restrictive membership requirements in their bylaws; the stories of their members do not represent the experiences of a true cross-section of the population. Care has been taken to address this directly both in our museum exhibition and on this website; we encourage teachers to use this example (of a primary source compromised by bias) to discuss the important steps historians must take to ensure they are putting forward a balanced and inclusive narrative.


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