Why Use Primary Sources?

When truth is often stranger than fiction


How exciting is it to read a letter written by one of America’s founding fathers? Or listen to a firsthand account of someone who experienced the Dust Bowl of the 1930s? Or view the anguish of the civil rights movement captured by a photograph?

When it comes to telling the true account of an event or an historical time period, there’s nothing more real or more exciting than a primary source.

A primary source is material created at the time of an historical event. They can include one, some, or all of the following:

  • objects or artifacts used
  • an original document created
  • pictures taken
  • eyewitness accounts written or recorded

Here are some tips on using primary sources:

  • Use several different resources. Every person sees things differently based on their vantage point or their perception of an event. People often interpret the same event differently based on their personal history, their involvement (or lack thereof) in the event, or any biases they may have. So it’s no surprise that one person’s eyewitness account of an event can be very different than another person’s. There’s something else to consider—what happens when one account is very different than another? Which story do you believe?
  • Use different types of resources. A written eyewitness account, an object or artifact, or a document—all from the same event or time period—can help form a more complete picture of a certain event or historical period.
  • Remember time matters. Consider when the source was made or how close to the event was the eyewitness account recorded. Think critically about how ideas and/or values of the society or time period of the source may be different than your own.

Here’s how you can you tell stories using primary sources:

  • Gather as much information from as many types of primary sources as you can.
  • Consider showing or re-creating actual objects from the event or time period.
  • Go to a museum and use their resources, objects, artifacts, and works of art to get a more complete picture of a person, place, event, or culture.

Once you have gathered as much information as you can about an event, tell your story. Think about how much more compelling a story can be using authentic objects or documents, or incorporating the most reliable voice by someone who had actually witnessed the event. Using primary source materials allows for a convincing narrative, one that’s based on as close to the truth as possible. As the saying goes, “Truth is often stranger than fiction!”



Veronica Alvarez
Original Writer

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