Best practices: Finding primary vs. secondary sources
Many faculty feel it is important to have students examine the original sources in a discipline. In this activity, students will differentiate between primary and secondary sources and use the Internet and online databases to locate additional examples.
Students are usually unfamiliar with primary sources and don't know how to locate and work with these resources. The purpose of this activity is to help students understand what primary and secondary sources are and how to find them. Doing so helps students learn more about the discipline they are studying and can lead to further discussions on topics such as reliability and validity, preservation, access, copyright, etc.
- Define what is typically meant by primary sources in your discipline.
- Faculty can either do this through lecture or through a group activity. For example, you can divide your class into groups and give each one an example of a primary and secondary source. Without telling the students which is which, have them come up with a list of the defining attributes.
- Set up an exercise for locating primary and secondary sources.
- For history classes, you can have students search the library catalog
to see what types of primary sources might be available. Search for a
topic along with a standardized subheading such as "diaries",
"interviews", etc. For example:
pioneers and diariesOther subheadings often used with primary sources are "early works to 1800", "pamphlets", "personal narratives", and "sources".
Civil War and correspondence
- Many institutions have special collections and archives, often located in the library, that offer a wealth of primary sources. The Archivist may be able to assist you in making contacts with other repositories in the area that may have collections of interest to your class.
- For classes in the social sciences, you may want to have students look up research studies in an online database. For example, in the ERIC database, education students can set the "Publication Type" limit option to "Reports--Research/Technical" to find studies on a topic of their choice. In many other databases, students can use a built-in feature to limit their search on a topic to scholarly or peer-reviewed articles.
- For history classes, you can have students search the library catalog to see what types of primary sources might be available. Search for a topic along with a standardized subheading such as "diaries", "interviews", etc. For example:
- Help students develop and understand criteria for evaluating a primary source.
- Give students a checklist of what to look for in a primary source. For example, see the Analyzing Primary Sources worksheet from the North Carolina Museum of History.
- Have students brainstorm characteristics to look for in a primary source.
- Using Primary Sources on the Web (Reference and User Service Association History Section in the American Library Association)
- How to Read a Journal Article in Social Psychology (Christian H. Jordan and Mark P. Zanna (1999). First Published in R. F. Baumeister (Ed.), The Self in Social Psychology (pp. 461-470). Philadelphia: Psychology Press.)