The Power of Primary Sources for K-12 Researchers

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The Power of Primary Sources for K-12 Researchers

By Sarah Robertson, FactCite: Lincoln Library Online

Imagine if your students could become historical detectives.

What would they learn if they could immerse themselves in the middle of notable events, from the early days of civilization to life-changing experiences in the 21st Century?

Primary sources are integral to the study of history. By engaging with first-hand accounts of historical events, K-12 researchers can expand their horizons, develop critical reading and thinking skills, and see history come to life by directly engaging with the past.

Primary sources have the power to expose students to different perspectives. For example, Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave, published in 1853, showcases slavery from the perspective of a free Black man who was captured. Through reading Northup’s text, students can learn about slavery from a person who experienced it, rather than reading about it through secondary sources such as a textbook.

Northup’s direct insights into the workings of the slave system reveal the hardships slaves endured, and narratives like his are essential to the study of American slavery.

In addition to opening students up to differing perspectives, primary sources promote critical reading and thinking skills. By asking students to think deeply about a source — including who wrote it, why they wrote it, the context in which it was written, and what purpose it served—students will think beyond the text itself. Primary sources unlock questions about the past, and rather than students simply ingesting information from a secondary source, they are forced to grapple with meanings and posit their own inferences from the material.

In reading primary sources, a student is forced to momentarily inhabit a bygone era. By doing this, history comes alive and holds a deeper sense of meaning. Exposing K-12 researchers to first-hand accounts teaches students that history is always being made. It is a series of events recorded by humans, not much different from us, who lived them. 

Sarah Robertson
Vice President, Editorial, Schlager Group / Milestone Documents and Milestone Documents Online (from MISBO consortium partner FactCite)

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