Historical Thinking Skills: Primary and Secondary Sources

Seemingly this is an easy lesson – most people can give you examples of primary and secondary sources after all. However, when you actually have to conduct historical research or analyze historical documents which document is primary and secondary can get confusing.

Students tend to think if it is old then it is a primary source

When I was in school I clearly remember the teacher tasked with teaching primary and secondary sources. He was good but he tended to stick to the old lessons that didn’t appropriately differentiate between historical primary and secondary sources.

Once you are asked to consider a document that is 500 or even 1,000 years old it is treated as a primary source. But historians in 1500 were still just analyzing the history they had learned or read about. Their analysis doesn’t make it a primary source.

What makes historical sources confusing though is if you are trying to analyze historical analyses about a particular event to see how viewpoints and opinions changed that same resource is now a primary source.

Seems simple but it does get confusing.

Example: you are doing research about Abigail Adams. What is and is not a primary resource?

Her clothing? Her letters? Letters about her written by her children? Letters recounting stories about her written by her children? What about stories told by her grandchildren?

Those documents would still be well over 200 years old and to many, possibly even most all of those would be primary sources based simply on age.

Another example: ancient historians and writers such as Livy, Thucydides, Herodotus are usually held as authorities of ancient history but many of the stories they retold in their writings were myths with no other basis.

Take the Trojan War for example. Written by Homer it is widely debated for its historical accuracy both for the overarching story line of the war itself and minor details such as weaponry and relationships of the city-states.

Of course The Illyad could be labeled a ficiticious story (which I believe it is) but what about The Histories? Also written by Homer it is considered the foundation of historical writing. Historians realize the account is completely biased and incomplete and that several of the events are disputed because of other historical records. Does this make it a primary resource though?

Teachers may read this and want to ask, “Does it matter?” I argue that it does. Having more in-depth lessons about primary and secondary resources can actually give students some tools to use in their world especially as conspiracy theories become mainstream and threaten democratic institutions.

Knowing how to differentiate between good information as well as filter out information that is opinion versus fact is a foundational skill in history.

What does this look like in the classroom?

Teachers have a tendency to hand students primary resources and they analyze the information. Stop doing that. Start asking them to filter through resources and classify them based on the information.

Students should be asked to consider multiple sources on a subject and decide for themselves if it meets the criteria to be a primary resource. This doesn’t mean multiple viewpoints such as the northern or southern perspective on the war but rather multiple resources from one side. Not every resource is a primary source. Let students show you that they can tell the difference depending on the subject.

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