Using Primary Sources
More than one history fair student has told contest judges that primary sources are "the books and web sites that I used the most for my project." This description misses the true definition of primary sources. It also suggests that students may not realize the array of firsthand materials about the past that is at their fingertips. While secondary sources deliver information based on someone else's interpretation and problem solving, primary sources offer students unique opportunities to learn in challenging, interactive, and authentic ways.
Definitions vary for the terms "primary" and "secondary" source. The Florida History Fair uses a broad definition that includes a wide variety of original material.
- Primary source: documents, records, and other evidence that are original to the time period, culture, or event under study and that are not derived from another source. In other words, they were created as part of the historical event.
- Secondary source: documents, records, and other evidence that are derived from original sources and that analyze or interpret a time period, culture, or event. Examples include your textbook, encyclopedias, and Wikipedia articles.
Among the materials that constitute primary sources are written documents and records (institutional, commercial, scholarly, and personal), books, artifacts, buildings, structures, maps, artworks, photographs, film and audio recordings, narratives, oral histories, legends, music, dance, folkways, people, and—in some cases—landscapes. Wow! What a selection! The sources for these materials are varied, although many can be found on the Internet. See Finding Primary Sources for examples of online primary sources and lesson plans.
The Student Connection
Finding, analyzing, and interpreting primary sources are integral steps in your History Day research. Some topics—for example, those relating to a very important person—will have lots of related materials that often are housed in one or more large collections. Other topics that are more obscure may require some real detective work to find written materials, track down associated artifacts, or find informants who can give firsthand accounts.
When beginning the research process, start with secondary sources, which provide an overview of the situation being studied, the names of the major "players" and key dates, and a summary of the importance of the situation. In addition, the bibliography in a secondary work usually lists the primary sources that the author used. This list can serve as a starting place for your research.
In the same way that a detective looks for clues at a crime scene to identify a suspect, historians look for evidence and details in primary sources to reconstruct past people, events, and ideas. To analyze a primary source effectively, you have to ask questions about the author, the physical nature of the source, and the era in which, and reasons for which, it was created. For example, in the case of a document, some of the questions that you might ask are:
- Who wrote it?
- When, where, and why was it written?
- For whom was it written?
- How was it written or made?
- What information or evidence did the author use?
- What are the author's assumptions and conclusions?
Returning to the analogy of a crime scene, after a detective has analyzed the evidence, what happens next? He or she explains, or interprets, the meaning and significance of the evidence (and hopefully arrests a suspect!). Similarly, historians interpret the meaning of primary sources to reconstruct the behaviors, beliefs, and actions of people of the past and to understand how and why events took place. Again, asking questions is part of the process of reaching conclusions:
- What historical questions are answered by this source?
- What questions does the source not answer?
- Does the source support or refute conclusions that you or other historians have reached?
- What additional evidence would be useful?
A final note. The terms "analyze," "interpret," and "evaluate" often are used interchangeably in explanations about using primary sources. In addition, there are many questions that you can ask when reviewing primary sources for information. While the terms and inquiry process may vary, the end product is the same. Ultimately, primary source interpretations should help to explain the causes, effects, and historical context of a History Day topic.
Internet resources can facilitate history fair research, but you should remember that judges look for a balance among books, documents, interviews, web sites, and other primary and secondary materials in an entry's annotated bibliography. You cannot become an effective historian if you only sit in front of your computer. You have to go to libraries, archives, and historic sites. You have to call people on the telephone or visit them in person.
Defining Primary Sources
Numerous web sites exist that define and describe primary and secondary sources. Four excellent examples include:
- Primary Sources—Yale University Library
- Finding Historical Primary Sources—University of California, Berkeley, Library
- Using Primary Sources in the Primary Grades—ERIC Digest
- Using Primary Sources on the Web—Reference & User Services Association
- Defining Primary Sources—UCLA Institute on Primary Sources