From the Horse’s Mouth: Primary Sources

Bringing young people into close contact with these unique, often profoundly personal, documents and objects can give them a very real sense of what it was like to be alive during a long-past era.

– Library of Congress

I love old photographs, artifacts, documents, and maps. What’s more, students enjoy using primary sources.

Primary sources are the documents, artifacts, or sources from the actual time period of study. Some examples of primary sources include photographs, legal documents, pottery, jewelry, buildings, maps, fossils, paintings, newspaper articles, scientific journals, and other evidence from a specific time period. The Library of Congress (LOC) is full of with information about how to use primary sources in the classroom. Warning: The site can be overwhelming with documents and information. That’s a good thing!

The U.S. National Archives has an amazing collection of primary documents and online exhibits you can use with the very young students to college kids. The Archives also contain a bevy of different teacher lessons, activities, resources, online exhibits, and professional development opportunities. Like the LOC, this website is massive and filled with wonderful resources and online materials about American, world history, science, and more.


Declaration of Independence

National Archives

 You can sign too!

Case in Point

My fourth grade students love learning about the Declaration of Independence and the road to the American Revolution. In an online interactive exhibit from the National Archives, visitors can choose a pen and add their name to the Declaration of Independence. I have a laminated copy (Oh, I do love lamination!) of the Declaration of Independence with my name on it written in a super classy font.

After our early American History unit, each class goes through the very dangerous and possibly treasonous steps of signing the Declaration of Independence as a class. Since I don’t live in a world where paper and printer ink flows like the meandering waters of the mighty Mississippi, I only print one copy per class. However, many of the kiddos will go home do it themselfs. That’s right. The kids go home and visit an educational website all for the sake of history. And they aren’t even required! That sounds like a win-win to me.

Frequently Asked Questions I Made Up

Why should I use primary sources in my class activities or in my research?

These sources help build a real picture of historical events and provide evidence about the past. Why use clip art and boring drawings when you can show pictures of the real thing! We are more actively engaged when we glean knowledge from these documents rather than relying on a textbook to construct new knowledge. Furthermore, students must use critical thinking skills to help make connections as they observe and analyze the documents.

The first flight, December 17, 1903, at the moment of takeoff. The Wright Brothers get credit for inventing the airplane.

The first flight, December 17, 1903, at the moment of takeoff. The Wright Brothers get credit for inventing the airplane. Photo: Wright State University


Clip art never beats the real thing.

See? Clip art never beats the real thing.

What kind of documents can I use?

Use what best works for you and/or your students. Consider audiences’ interests and do not focus on one type of primary document. Make sure you vary your sources. When I was learning American history, my teacher used mountains of political cartoons and nothing else. Not only did I overdose on political cartoons, but I did not grasp that political cartoons helped demonstrate the mood of a particular group in a specific time period. I thought that was how all citizens of that time felt. We didn’t analyze the cartoons or make connections to history.  Meaningful learning did not take place. That is not a win-win situation.

I have some primary documents, but how do I use them K. Renae?

Great question! If you need some ideas on how to use primary sources effectively, the LOC has some great analysis tools and guides.

This was hard work. Finding a primary source is easy.

K. Renae P.’s  Top 5 Super Awesome Suggestions for Including More Primary Sources in Your Classroom or Research!

  • Search, add, and save a variety of primary sources.
  • Accept this is a new learning journey. Your journey will be a long one so take your time. Everything won’t be done at once. And with any journey there will be exciting discoveries and setbacks.
  • Take time to research your documents. This is a professional learning journey after all.
  • Record where you retrieved your document and what the document is about. You will not remember everything.
  • Use effective practices when sharing these documents with your students and colleague. Explore how you can make use of primary documents in other subjects like math, literature, and language.


Do you like using primary sources? How have you used primary documents?


Library of Congress

LOC- Primary Source Sets

LOC- Teacher’s Guides and Analysis Tools

LOC- Finding Primary Sources

National Archives Teacher Resources


4 thoughts on “From the Horse’s Mouth: Primary Sources

  1. Really interesting. I teach continuing education courses to adults and will definitely take a look at these resources.

  2. As a fellow “history geek” elementary teacher, I applaud your use of primary sources! I think that engaging kids in a study of history is the most profound action that we can take as teachers.
    “Those who fail…..”, etc.

    • Thanks. I find students are more engaged when I use primary documents. I know I am too. I believe it helps them make sense of history and science. Plus, it is more fun.

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