Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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America's History in the Making

Primary vs. Secondary Source Material

America’s History in the Making uses primary and secondary sources as an important part of its approach to teaching and learning history.

The term “primary source” is used to mean any item—such as a document, painting, map, song, or piece of clothing—that was created in the period that is under study. For example, a letter written by George Washington could be a primary source for the era of the Revolution.

Identifying primary sources can be complicated, however. For example, a painting created in 1852 that portrays a scene of the Revolution is a primary source for 1852 but not for the time it portrays. The painter in 1852 may be romanticizing the past or trying to make some kind of other assertion (positive or negative) about the past based on his or her own current situation. Looking for and understanding these biases can deepen the understanding of the historical era in which an artifact was created.

Primary sources can help enrich the understanding of a period, but they can require a bit of time and effort to fully understand their context. One common stumbling block to using primary sources is “presentism”—viewing a historical source from our own frame of reference. For example, it’s hard for today’s students to look at a corset and understand that an upper-class, white woman living in Boston in the nineteenth century would no more consider going out of the house without it than a woman today would go out on the street without wearing a shirt. Helping students understand artifacts in their own context—instead of a twenty-first century context—can be challenging, but also very rewarding.

The analysis of artifacts involves a process similar to reading historical documents, with attention to the details of how things are represented. The way a figure is posed in a portrait (wearing a particular style of clothing, pictured with specific household objects, etc.) may reveal cultural values shared by the painter and the subject. The use of rhythm and repetition in a song may indicate what information or beliefs are being emphasized, particularly if the original singers and audience for the song came from a culture that privileged the oral transmission of information.

Secondary source materials are useful vehicles for providing thought-provoking questions about history, and new insights into why history happened in one way or another. These sources include charts, articles, or other items created by information provided in primary source artifacts.

A map might be primary or secondary source. A map created in 1558 is a primary source for that time; a map created today, showing who occupied what land in 1558 is a secondary source. America’s History in the Making uses maps in both ways to compare and contrast how history has been told over time.

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