A primary source is evidence of history. Whether it is an object, text, or recording, a primary source was created at the time a particular event occurred or was created by someone with firsthand knowledge of an event.
A secondary source synthesizes or analyzes primary source material. Typically, researchers produce secondary sources after an historical event or era. They discuss or interpret evidence found in primary sources. Examples are books, articles, and documentaries.
Using materials from the Helen Keller Archive, students learn to identify and use primary sources in their research and historical writing. Students differentiate between primary and secondary sources and critically examine the authorship, purpose, and historical context of multiple primary sources.
Define and differentiate between primary and secondary sources.
Examine and analyze the contents of primary sources.
Does anyone keep a diary? Write texts? Take photos? Create art?
If a historian found your diary/emails/photos 100 years from now, what would they learn about your life? Family? School? Town?
For example, in an archaeological dig, researchers might uncover your local landfill, including the empty toothpaste tube you threw out last week. Looking through an archive, a researcher might find my gradebook from this very year…including your last test score.
These everyday products of your life are potentially primary sources. Historians use items like these from ten, a hundred, a thousand years ago to learn about the past.
Explain and Connect:
A Primary Source …
Was created in the past, specifically at the time being researched.
But just being “old” does not make something a primary source.
Has firsthand knowledge or other direct evidence of the era or subject under research.
Has provenance. Provenance means that the time and/or place of the production of a document or artifact can be reasonably believed to be true and provable.
Needs to be evaluated based on its creators (who made it) and historical context (when and how it exists).
Is found in an archive, museum, library/bookstore, or maybe in your backpack, right now.
Define archive for students if necessary. See Definitions page.
Explain that if your texts and videos are preserved, for example in an archive, library, or museum, scholars in the future may use your work to write a history of the early 21st century.
Look at your last text conversation/email thread/search history. What could it show a historian about life in the 21st century?
Compare sources side-by-side, using worksheet at the end of this lesson plan.
Read sources as a class.
What is similar about these two sources? Different?
Both of these documents are about Helen Keller and her advocacy. One was written 100+ years later by a historian, and one was written by Helen herself.
The letter is a primary source.
The biography is a secondary source.
A secondary source…
Was written after the time under research.
Brings together primary source material to tell a larger story.
Some sources can be either a primary or secondary source, depending on how it is used.
For example: if someone in the 19th century is writing about the 17th century, that source is a secondary source for the 17th century and a primary source for the 19th century.
Is found in classrooms, libraries/bookstores, movies, or new media.
Brainstorm Examples of Primary and Secondary Sources
Optional: Which of the following are primary sources? Secondary? Both?
Your history textbook
A diary written in 1940
Leonardo’s The Last Supper
A documentary on the life of Helen Keller
A photograph of the attack on Pearl Harbor during World War II
Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, using search terms effectively; assess the credibility and accuracy of each source; and quote or paraphrase the data and conclusions of others while avoiding plagiarism and following a standard format for citation.
Lesson Two Primary and Secondary Sources – Helen Keller Archive
The mission of the American Foundation for the Blind is to create a world of no limits for people who are blind or visually impaired. We mobilize leaders, advance understanding, and champion impactful policies and practices using research and data.