Treasure Hunt: The Benefits of Using Primary Sources with Students

I think I have always loved research, although when I was much younger I called it exploring, whether in the library, museum, or art gallery. Since I was one of those youngsters who always asked one more "why" question, my parents were extremely pleased when I could read and uncover answers for myself. They called it going on a "treasure hunt," because we never knew what interesting things we would find in our search. Later, as librarian, I found this same sense of exciting discovery could be fostered in students when looking at primary sources.

Tom Bober, in his new book Elementary Educator's Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching (2019), gives this working definition: "a primary source is an item directly connected to a topic and related time." To me, this means it's all about looking at things in context. Maybe it's an important historical document, like the Declaration of Independence. But it doesn't have to be. It can be a newspaper article contemporary with the period of study, like "Men Walk on Moon" (1969) or "Astros Outlast Dodgers to Clinch First World Series Title," (2017). A primary source is an authentic item that can inform a student's research and help them practice historical thinking skills—and it usually provides that most important of all things when working with teens, engagement! But the benefits don't stop there. Here are some of the key advantages I've found to using primary sources in the library.

They spark meaningful collaborations
Is using primary sources a part of your state social studies standards? This could be the perfect opportunity for some mutually beneficial collaboration. Offer your services to those overworked teachers and create a one-day lesson on how to find and use primary sources. Archives of primary sources abound online: there's the Library of Congress ( and the Smithsonian (, plus databases like ABC-CLIO (, where you can also find guiding questions and frameworks to help students analyze the materials.

They add depth to coverage of historical topics
Once you've wowed the teacher and students with an introduction to primary sources, the door is open to collaborate on a topic that would benefit from the addition of primary sources. For example, if you are studying the Great Depression, you could analyze a series of paintings or photographs and discuss the messages portrayed. For a unit on the Vietnam War, you could look at political cartoons and consider, what are they trying to persuade the reader to do? Or maybe try a decade study where students need to find a number of pictures to summarize the decade.

They provide multiple perspectives
Why should we go to the extra trouble of including primary sources in our work with students? There are many reasons. One I especially like is that primary sources offer students more of a chance to be in the history they are studying and allow them to realize this was a real event that impacted real people. Sometimes just finding facts keeps one distant from the reality of the event. Students can also be exposed to multiple points of view. They say history is written by the victor, so encountering differing opinions allows them to critically think about the event.

They encourage empathy and compassion
But the benefit that I feel is most important is that primary sources give students the chance to build empathy. Empathy is the ability to put to put oneself in another's place and is a great way to look at all aspects of an historical event. According to teacher educator Keith Barton (1997), "as students conduct historical inquiry, the related instruction should explicitly focus on helping students to weigh historical evidence, examine biases, synthesize information, and reach conclusions so students understand that the accounts they read are subjective and are the creation of an author who has biases, motives, and beliefs." To this I would add that historical inquiry through primary sources allows students to be empathetic to the plights of others which in turn will encourage them to be compassionate to those around them.

I still believe primary sources are like treasure hunts: it takes some digging but you just might uncover a fantastic find in the end.

Works Cited

Barton, Keith C. "I just Kinda Know: Elementary Students' Ideas about Historical Evidence." Theory and Research in Social Education 25, no. 4 (1997): 407-430.

Bober, Tom. Elementary Educator's Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. Libraries Unlimited, 2019.

Wilford, John Noble, "Men walk On Moon." New York Times, July 21, 1969.

Witz, Billy. "Astros Outlast Dodgers to Clinch First World Series Title." New York Times, Nov. 2, 2017.

About the Editor

Liz Deskins, MA, currently serves as an instructor in the School of Information at Kent State University and has been a teacher-librarian for more than 25 years. She earned her master's degree from the Ohio State University and is coauthor of the books LGBTQAI+ Books for Children and Teens: Providing a Window for All (ALA Editions, 2018) and Linking Picture Book Biographies to National Content Standards: 200+ Lives to Explore (Libraries Unlimited, 2015). She has served in numerous leadership roles within both the Ohio Educational Library Media Association and the American Association of School Librarians.

MLA Citation Deskins, Liz. "Treasure Hunt: The Benefits of Using Primary Sources with Students." School Library Connection, January 2019,

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Entry ID: 2186195

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