Primary Source Documents

Why use primary sources?


 Excerpted from

Develop critical thinking skills…

The close of a career in New York


Primary sources are snippets of history. They are incomplete and often come without context. They require students to be analytical, to examine sources thoughtfully and to determine what else they need to know to make inferences from the materials.

A high school student states, “I learned that in order to do history, one must be objective and be able to look at a puzzle of historical events and put them together in order.”



Understand all history is local…

Charlie Williams and Granddaughter

Local history projects require students to “tell their own stories” about familiar people, events, and places. Memories from an adults’ perspective provide a rich glimpse of history that is not available in a textbook. What evolves is the sense that world history is also personal family history, which provides a compelling context for student understanding.


An elementary/middle school teacher reports that,”...finding information about topics that are of importance to our local history is invaluable. Students are excited by the fact that our local history is archived nationally. This gives their immediate cultural area importance in their eyes.”


Acquire empathy for the human condition…


Walt Whitman Notebooks


Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past coming away with a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events.


A high school teacher reported that, “In sharing the Whitman hospital letters, I clearly saw a sheen of tears in students’ eyes and noted an avid interest in Civil War soldiers as ‘people,’ not simply as pallid historical figures.”


Consider different points of view in analysis…


A harvest of death, Gettysburg, July, 1863

In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to making inferences about the materials. “Point of view” is one of the most important inferences that can be drawn. What is the intent of the speaker, of the photographer, of the musician? How does that color one’s interpretation or understanding of the evidence?

A high school teacher states that, “Discovering that two people seeing the same primary source differently creates a kind of dissonance that opens up the meaning of the source and creates new understanding in learners."



Understand the continuum of history… 

Drafts of Langston Hughes's poem "Ballad of Booker T.


It is difficult for students to understand that we all participate in making history everyday, that each of us in the course of our lives leave behind primary source documentation that scholars years hence may examine as a record of “the past.” The immediacy of first-person accounts of events is compelling to most students.

“Comparisons of events of the past to events our are students are engaged in daily helps to bring “history” to the present and make it ‘live’ for our students.” 

Here are some wonderful resources to get you started:

The Library of Congress  
A great source for historical documents.

The American Memory Collection 
Offers “free and open access to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience.”

National Archives  An extensive collection of documents, photos, and research links.  

More primary source documents, maps, images, and artifacts that you can use in your classroom: 

U.S. History

Documenting the American South 
An electronic text archive from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill which contains primary source slavery narratives and first-person narratives of the South as well as a digitized library of southern literature.

From Revolution to Reconstruction and What Happened Afterwards 
This site contains documents dating from the Magna Carta to G.W. Bush’s inaugural speech in 2001; biographies of presidents and historical persons, and essays submitted from various sources. 

Early America  
A unique array of primary source material from 18th Century America. Scenes and portraits from original newspapers, maps and writings are presented in a visually-pleasing layout. Students will enjoy exploring this site.

A Chronology of US Historic Documents 
Sponsored by the University of Oklahoma College of Law, this site provides access to documents ranging from Magna Carta to the present.  
Many presidential inaugural addresses are included, as are some songs, poems, letters, and more

Smithsonian Institution 
The Smithsonian Institution offers access to primary sources and other resources on a wide variety of topics, including military and political history.

New Deal Network 
This site contains hundreds of primary sources related to the Depression era and the New Deal, including letters, photographs, posters, political cartoons, government documents, speeches, and more. You can also find background information on New Deal programs.

The Papers of Jefferson Davis 
Learn about Jefferson Davis, the President of the Confederacy, through his writings. You can also find background information on his life and family.

Truman Presidential Museum and Library 
Find primary source documents, photos, letters, journals, and more on 20th century history

The Valley of the Shadow 
Learn about the impact of the Civil War on two counties, Pennsylvania's Franklin County and Virginia's Augusta County, through the primary source images, documents, letters, newspapers, and maps at this site.

Popular Songs in American History  
Tunes, lyrics, and historical information provided. 

Dr. Seuss Went to War: A Catalog of Political Cartoons
For two years, 1941-1943, famous children’s book author Dr. Seuss was the chief editorial cartoonist for the New York newspaper PM (1940-1948), and for that journal he drew over 400 editorial cartoons.

Docs Teach 
From the National Archives Experience, these activity-creation tools help student develop historical thinking skills while analyzing primary source documents selected by teachers and organized in easy-to-use templates. 

World History

The Chauvet Cave 
Learn about the 1994 discovery of Paleolithic cave paintings in France and view photographs of the paintings.

History Net 
This collection of resources highlights topics in United States and world history through eyewitness accounts, interviews, photographs, and other primary and secondary sources.

Eye Witness to History
Eyewitness accounts from the Ancient World to the 20th Century.  Great images and audio accounts as well.

The Labyrinth 
This collection of medieval resources includes an electronic library of poetry and prose in medieval languages, on-line bibliographies, professional directories and news about medieval studies, links to related teaching resources, and information on medieval cultures.

Perseus Project 
Perseus is a growing collection of online resources for studying the ancient world. Materials include ancient texts and translations, maps, articles, essays, and images from over 70 museums around the world.

The University of Memphis Institute of Egyptian Art and Archaeology 
This site contains an exhibit of ancient Egyptian artifacts and a virtual tour of ancient Egyptian cities.

Vincent Voice Library 
This site features primary source sound samples, such as speech clips from many U.S. presidents and other notable figures in history. Difficult to browse but wonderful resources, including sports clips.

Google Cultural Institute!home:page=1
Google has partnered with museums and organizations to curate online historical exhibitions telling the stories behind major events of the last century, including Apartheid, D-Day and the Holocaust.