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Fostering Deeper Understanding with Primary Sources


As a kid, I can remember visiting Colonial Williamsburg with my family and taking home a souvenir Declaration of Independence. My copy was a crinkly, yellowed replica of the document, folded into thirds in a brightly colored envelope. Back home, I’d take it out from time to time to study it, examining the signatures and trying to decipher the complicated penmanship. The paper had a funny smell, and that wasn’t a bad thing—more like a sensory affirmation of my understanding that this was a very special thing, worth keeping, and representing something very important.

Years later as a high school student, I recall seeing the “real” Declaration of Independence (as far as I know anyway, keeping in mind the stories about rotating authentic papers) on a school trip to the National Archives Museum in Washington, D.C. Set up on a pedestal behind thick glass, the document seemed incredible and kind of unreal, even though it was right in front of me. I had a better sense of the document’s place in history by that point. Despite my more mature perspective, however, in both my interactions with this work that forged our nation’s founding, the primary source document was at the same time immediate and untouchable.

Integrating primary sources into students’ inquiry experiences should provoke curiosity and appreciation, like my introduction to the Declaration of Independence. But beyond that, the exploration of primary sources for deep learning should be within reach in real ways, through concepts and understandings that resonate with young people.

In reading the articles and preparing for this issue, my vision of primary source-infused learning widened, including updated channels for accessing primary sources digitally, new awareness of professional development opportunities, and refreshed interpretation of potential learning to be realized. As our authors remind us, primary sources include historical documents like the Declaration of Independence, as well as works of art, posters, speeches, music and film, realia, and more. As the Library of Congress Teachers webpage explains, primary sources are

 …original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience (Library of Congress n.d.).

I invite you be creative and curious about how you might apply the content of this Primary Sources issue of SLC, integrating the inherent social studies orientation with other content areas. How might you foster deep understanding of ideas through discussions and studies of primary sources in a poetry lesson, for example, or a media studies unit? Here’s a start, in a brief brainstorming chart below. Share what you think of these starters and give your ideas for integrating primary sources @SLC_Online.

Integrating Subject Areas & TopicsPrimary Source ExampleEssential Questions & Inquiry Ideas
Health and Physical Education, Media Studies, Social Studies/History, Science (secondary)Pittsburgh Pirates baseball card portrait, 1913, with offer for free portrait for sending 40 cigarette coupons are sports and marketing linked? Evaluate the advertising strategies used here. How has fans’ access to professional athletes and memorabilia changed over time? Are athletes role models? How have sports science and related health and fitness fields affected professional sports?
Health and Physical Education, Social Studies/History, English Language Arts (middle grades)Muddy Jim and Other Rhymes: 12 Illustrated Health Jingles for Children, Picture Book Edition, “Learn every rhyme and be healthy all the time." (1919) ( does healthy living mean? What are ways to take care of your health? What is your evaluation of the advice in this book? How are children and adults portrayed in the illustrations? What is the goal of this book, and can you locate a current source with a similar goal?


Works Cited

The Library of Congress. “Using Primary Sources.” (accessed July 22, 2016).

About the Author

Rebecca J. Morris, MLIS, PhD, is teaching associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Computing and Information. She earned her master's degree and doctorate at the University of Pittsburgh and her undergraduate degree in elementary education at Pennsylvania State University. Rebecca has published articles in journals including School Library Research, Knowledge Quest, School Libraries Worldwide, Teacher Librarian and the Journal of Research on Young Adults in Libraries. She is the author of School Libraries and Student Learning: A Guide for School Leaders (Harvard Education Publishing Group, 2015). Rebecca is a former elementary classroom teacher and middle school librarian.


Twitter: @rebeccajm87.

MLA Citation

Morris, Rebecca J. "Fostering Deeper Understanding with Primary Sources." School Library Connection, November 2016,

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Entry ID: 2046630