Audio-Visual Primary Sources

Why Use Audio-Visual Primary Sources [7:56]
As we begin to look at audio-visual primary sources, we want to have some idea of what makes them unique compared to other formats that are typically accessed by students and educators as primary sources.
As we begin to look at audio-visual primary sources, we want to have some idea of what makes them unique compared to other formats that are typically accessed by students and educators as primary sources. Let's begin with film as a format and consider the topic of urbanization of America in the Second Industrial Revolution. Written descriptions may help, but you can imagine that visual imagery would show what those cities were like.

Take a look at these images from the intersection of Madison and State Streets in Chicago, Illinois in the early 20th century. We can certainly gain information about what the city streets looked like, how busy they were, what types of transportation existed, and even what type of clothing was typical at the time.

Now, let's take a look at a film of the same intersection in Chicago from the late 19th century, in 1897. As you're watching the film, remember that we have the same topic of study and the same content, the corners of Madison and State Street. We've only changed the format. As you watch, think about what is different and what your students would notice as different between the two formats.

What would your students notice as different when viewing these two different formats? Many of mine would mention the movement in the film. We as viewers get a different idea of what the city street was like when we see the movement. Similar to the photos, you see pedestrians, horses, and street cars, but in the film, we're able to see these things move through the street and how they move around each other. We have an idea of the pacing of those on the street.

In addition to movement, students might mention that it feels like you're there at the moment. Part of that is likely related to movement, but it may also be related to the position of the camera that captured the film. Remember back to our photographs, the camera was elevated, removing the viewer from what they were seeing. That elevation gives a wide view but not as personal of a view as our film. While this might not always be the case with every film, it can be said that the combination of movement and proximity in film provides a unique experience to the format. Finally, students may notice that the film can be retold as a series of events. Unlike the photographs, there is more than a single moment captured in a film. We'll talk more about these moments in film when we're discussing strategies to analyze primary source film later in the workshop.

Audio is a second audio-visual format that we can explore as a primary source. For this example, let's focus in on our time period of the early 20th century and shift just a bit to the topic of automobiles, something we didn't see in our 1897 film but did see in some of the photos that were taken later in the early 1900s.

First, let's take a moment to view a print primary source on the topic and from the time period, a 1905 piece of sheet music called Automobiling. Even if you can't read music, the lyrics give us an idea of the perspective of the author and composer's ideas about automobile owners and their experiences of the day. As you read the lyrics, you may notice mentions of giving away a car that has broken down and taking the trolley home or needing his own private hospital for the victims that happen in my way. As a whole, the lyrics are a satirical look at car ownership at the time, but there are certainly insights into issues of the day related to the automobile ownership and the culture surrounding it, making it a primary source that could benefit students.

As I read the lyrics though, I ask myself, would middle school or high school students understand that this is a comedic look at people who owned automobiles at the time? Does that become apparent? And if it doesn't, how does that impact how they interpret the message? My initial impression is that I would not have many of my students initially see that comedic element inherent in the source.

With that in mind, let's listen to an audio recording from 1908 on the same topic of automobiles. Again, we have a primary source that reveals issues of automobile ownership of the day. The man is asked if he's going to have the person deliver the auto, run it for him. He replies he learned to run the automobile by reading a book. Listeners learned that making a car run at that time involves turning a crank and that the smell of gasoline from the car is powerful.

Also, like our last source, it's a comedic view of automobile ownership. The man seems to know little about running the automobile. Spectators, likely meant to be neighbors, laugh at his stumbles, while he also strikes jokes to make them laugh.

So, again, I ask myself if middle school and high school students would identify this as a comedic portrayal. I think there are elements that may help them. The laughing, the inflection in the voices, the story that is told, and even the sound effects help to set the tone as one that is meant to be humorous.

These examples help us to identify two factors that are prevalent in many audio primary sources. First, there is sometimes a sense of story that is intended by the creator of the source. Much like our film, there is a sequence of events that take place over time, encouraging students to see unique moments in the recording, and possibly, as in our audio example, a connected beginning, middle, and end.

In addition to a sense of story or events depicted over time, audio sources have a stronger ability to convey emotion than print sources. Listening to a source encourages us to create a picture in our mind, specifically because there's nothing to see. Making that connection to images in our own mind may be what helps us to identify an accompanying feeling. It makes me wonder what different reaction might I have or my students have to the earlier sheet music if I were listening to it as opposed to reading it.

You see that film and audio have unique elements. Story and sequence, movement and emotion are more prevalent in these formats of primary sources. These aspects of audio-visual primary sources can make them engaging to students and lead them to think critically about the topic under study, as they develop an understanding of an event, person, or time period.

Additional Resources

Primary Source Audio Visual Resources
Primary Sources Used in This Workshop
Teaching with AV Sources.

About the Author

Tom Bober is a school librarian, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the books Elementary Educator's Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching and Building News Literacy: Lessons for Teaching Critical Thinking Skills in Elementary and Middle Schools. He is a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep, a member of the Teachers Advisory Board for the National Portrait Gallery, and a co-chair of the Education Advisory Committee of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Tom writes about student learning on AASL's Knowledge Quest blog and publications such as School Library Connection and American Libraries and has given workshops and spoken across the country. His foundation is built on over twenty years in public education, with six years as an elementary classroom teacher, seven years as a building and district instructional technology specialist, and over eight years in school libraries. Find him at and on Twitter @CaptainLibrary.

MLA Citation

Bober, Tom. "Audio-Visual Primary Sources. Why Use Audio-Visual Primary Sources [7:56]." School Library Connection, ABC-CLIO, January 2018,

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Entry ID: 2123889