TKM Historical Archives: Primary Resources
Primary sources are first-hand accounts or documents (often legal documents). Examples of this include a person's diary, the actual Declaration of Independence, a letter sent from a soldier to his family in time of war, a will, a baptismal certificate, or a marriage license.
- What's a "primary" source?
- What's the opposite of a primary source?
The opposite of this is the "secondary" source. A secondary source is a generalized account of an event wherein the description of the events is an interpretation made by an editor/historian of the information provided by primary sources.
One reads a novel and one has read the primary source. One reads a criticque of the novel and a review of the novel, or an explication of the characters or themes in the novel, then one has read a secondary source. Another example of this would be a history textbook which recounts the events of war and then goes on to explain the outcome and the reasons for that outcome. History text books are secondary sources which have drawn on primary source documents to supply the events, places or people which were involved in the making of a civilization or a war or a treaty.
Students are often directed to look for answers to questions posed at the end of a chapter of reading. The "correct" answer all too often is merely a fact or facts revealed in the text. Little time is allocated to encourage students to examine primary source documents for the information revealed within. Primary source documents show real attitudes, real experiences, often not reflectived in textbooks. Using primary source documents challenges the student to examine what is actually said or done by individuals. The student must then decipher that information and interpret it in light of contextual knowledge surrounding the experience reflected in the document. Through primary source documents, the student constructs an understanding of the person, time, event.
How do we help a student do this?
One important way is to develop the students' vocabulary. While students may be drilled in denotation, frequently, not enought time is spent on connotation. Therefore, the examination of primary documents asks student to consider what words mean in a given context which is influenced by social or economic events. In this way students are making connections to what they know and what they don't know; decifering from denotation until a satisfactory answer is delivered which can explain what the intent was of the writer.
A second way is to provide students with many opportunities to examine primary sources and compare them to secondary sources. Invite students to indentify the fact revealed in the primary source that is described in the secondary source. Have students compare the vocabulary. Have students discuss the primary source writer's point of view in recounting the event. Then have them discuss the presentation of the same fact in the secondary source. Does the secondary source reveal a bias on the part of the editor? Does the real person's account reveal a bias? Ask students to consider their emotional response to the primary source account versus the description of it in the secondary source.
You will find ample opportunities to examine primary sources in the Historical Archives. But these are only a sampling which reveal much about the social and historical context of To Kill a Mockingbird.