Using Primary Sources

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Essential Question:

What is primary source information, and how do I use it for research?



Primary Source—

Primary sources are actual records that have survived from the past, such as letters, photographs, articles of clothing.”  Examples include: “personal papers, government documents, letters, oral accounts, diaries, maps, photographs, reports…artifacts, coins, stamps, etc.”


Secondary Source—

Secondary sources are accounts of the past created by people writing about events sometime after they happened. For example, your history textbook is a secondary source. Someone wrote most of your textbook long after historical events took place.” (





Look at these links. Which are primary source information and which are secondary? Explain your answer. (HINT: This one you might remember from 3rd Grade) (HINT: this one you might remember from 5th grade)


Nooksack Reporter:

Washington Pioneer, George Bush:




MINDWALK: What primary source information do you leave behind every day?

Look at the clothes you are wearing today. If researchers found them 100 years from now, what could they know about you and your life? Could they tell if you are a boy or a girl? Could they tell what sports you like? Could they tell what music or entertainment you like or where you live or travel?

If a researcher looked at a picture of your class, what would they know
about kids and school today?

Now think about a day in your life and what primary source information you create every day.

1.      Think about all the activities you were involved in during the past 24 hours. List as many of these activities as you can remember.

2.    For each activity on your list, write down what evidence, if any, your activities might have left behind. (Example: Did you send an email to a friend?—evidence that you have technology. Or write a poem in class?—evidence of what you learn in school and of your creativity.)

3.    Review your entire list, and what you wrote about evidence your activities left behind. Then answer these questions:

o        Which of your daily activities were most likely to leave trace evidence behind?

o        What, if any, of that evidence might be preserved for the future? Why? (Did you put that poem in your writing portfolio?)

o        What might be left out of an historical record of your activities? Why? (Did you put an old shirt into the garbage or rag bag?)

o        What would a future historian be able to tell about your life and your society based on evidence of your daily activities that might be preserved for the future?




Your clothes are artifacts—things that you leave behind as evidence of your life. The ring you looked at earlier is an artifact. There are many kinds of Primary Sources.

Open this link to find out about:

Published Documents (ex. Posters and newspapers)
Unpublished Documents (ex. Your report card or someone’s diary)
Oral Traditions and Histories (ex. Recorded stories Native Americans have told)
Visual Documents and Artifacts (ex. Photographs and tools)



Not all Primary Sources have good, accurate, or relevant information. An email or diary or BLOG might show one person’s opinions and thoughts, but not reveal much about everyone else. It might be bias—opinion instead of fact.

Historians and researchers evaluate primary sources by looking at time, place, and bias.

Time and Place Rule (from:

To judge the quality of a primary source, historians use the time and place rule. This rule says the closer in time and place a source and its creator were to an event in the past, the better the source will be. Based on the time and place rule, better primary sources (starting with the most reliable) might include:

bullet Direct traces of the event;
bullet Accounts of the event, created at the time it occurred, by firsthand observers and participants;
bullet Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by firsthand observers and participants;
bullet Accounts of the event, created after the event occurred, by people who did not participate or witness the event, but who used interviews or evidence from the time of the event.

Bias Rule

The historians' second rule is the bias rule. It says that every source is biased in some way. Documents tell us only what the creator of the document thought happened, or perhaps only what the creator wants us to think happened. As a result, historians follow these bias rule guidelines when they review evidence from the past:

bullet Every piece of evidence and every source must be read or viewed skeptically and critically.
bullet No piece of evidence should be taken at face value. The creator's point of view must be considered.
bullet Each piece of evidence and source must be cross-checked and compared with related sources and pieces of evidence.


When you evaluate a primary source, first make sure it really will help you with your research—does it help answer your question?

Then ask these questions(from:

  1. Who created the source and why? Was it created through a spur-of-the-moment act, a routine transaction, or a thoughtful, deliberate process?
  2. Did the recorder have firsthand knowledge of the event? Or, did the recorder report what others saw and heard?
  3. Was the recorder a neutral party, or did the creator have opinions or interests that might have influenced what was recorded?
  4. Did the recorder produce the source for personal use, for one or more individuals, or for a large audience?
  5. Was the source meant to be public or private?
  6. Did the recorder wish to inform or persuade others? (Check the words in the source. The words may tell you whether the recorder was trying to be objective or persuasive.) Did the recorder have reasons to be honest or dishonest?
  7. Was the information recorded during the event, immediately after the event, or after some lapse of time? How large a lapse of time?

Practice Analyzing a Primary Source--

Here is part of the Oregon Trail diary of Narcissa Whitman in 1836. She was one of the first pioneers in Washington. Her mother suggested she keep a diary, and so she wrote as if she was writing to her mother.

Read the diary and ask the questions from above. Do you learn about life on the Oregon Trail from this primary source document? Were you surprised by her description? What type of primary source is it?

"I wish I could describe to you how we live so that you can realize it. Our manner of living is far preferable to any in the States. I never was so contented and happy before neither have I enjoyed such health for years. In the morning as soon as the day breaks the first that we hear is the words, "Arise! Arise!" - then the mules set up such a noise as you never heard, which puts the whole camp in motion. We encamp in a large ring, baggage and men, tents and wagons on the outside, and all the animals except the cows, which are fastened to pickets, within the circle. This arrangement is to accommodate the guard, who stand regularly every night and day, also when we are in motion, to protect our animals from the approach of Indians, who would steal them. As I said, the mules' noise brings every man on his feet to loose them and turn them out to feed.

Now, H. and E., you must think it very hard to have to get up so early after sleeping on the soft ground, when you find it hard work to open your eyes at seven o'clock. Just think of me - every morning at the word, "Arise!" we all spring. While the horses are feeding we get breakfast in a hurry and eat it. By this time the words, "Catch up! Catch up," ring through the camp for moving. We are ready to start usually at six, travel till eleven, encamp, rest and feed, and start again about two; travel until six, or before, if we come to a good tavern, then encamp for the night."




Whatever kind of primary source you use for your research, you need to be able to take notes and gather information to answer your question.

Things to remember:

bulletAlways cite your source (URL for the website, museum, person, book, etc.)
bulletRead or look for important information. Only write down observations or information that will help with your specific research question.
bulletRecord the who, when, where, and why of the primary source.
bulletRecord your personal responses.

Looking at photographs and visual primary sources—
(Details make for good writing, so start collecting them while you research!)

bulletWhen and where did it happen?
bulletWho is in the picture and what is happening?
bulletWhy is this primary source important to you? How does it help answer your research question?
bulletResponse—How does this primary source make you feel? What do you now understand about the people and the time?

Practice getting information from photographs:

bulletQuestion--What was school like before integration?.
bullet Two Classrooms Open this link to see two photographs. Look at them for information about schools before integration.
bulletAnswer the photograph questions from above.
bullet You can print the note-sheet or use it for discussion.

Looking at artifacts--

bulletWhat is it? When was it created or used? By whom?
bulletDescribe the artifact--material, use, color, wear, size, etc
bulletWhy is this artifact important to you? How does it help answer your research question?
bulletResponse—How does this artifact make you feel? What do you now understand about the people who used the artifact?

Practice getting information from artifacts:

bulletQuestion--What was life life for the first English immigrants in Jamestown colony?
bullet Felling Axe--Open this link to see an axe from Jamestown. Look at it for information about life in Colonial Jamestown.
bulletTalk about the "Looking at Artifacts" questions from above.


Now you know about Primary Sources.

You can tell primary source information from secondary source information.

You know different kinds of primary sources.

You can analyze primary sources of information.

You can gather important information from primary sources.

These fascinating sources of information can add detail, authenticity and personal perspective to your research projects.


Primary Source Sites:

 Civil Rights Photos: Two Classrooms

Eye Witness to History:

National Archives:

Papers of George Washington:

Do History:

National Museum of American History:

The History Place:

Teaching with Documents:

Primary Source Analysis Sheets:

100 Milestone Documents:

Land, People and Time: Exploring Northwest Treaty History:

Immigration Sites:

Whatcom County Census Records:

Immigration Explorer (Move the arrow along the time line to see how immigrant populations changed.)

Ellis Island:

Destination America: lots of links

WLMA information on Primary Sources:


bulletFrances Gregory
bulletElementary Library Teacher
bulletHarmony & Acme Elementary


bulletAnne Skelton
bulletElementary Library Teacher
bulletKendall Elementary



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