With the increasingly widespread availability of free and subscription digital archives, it has become more common for professors to ask students to find and use primary historical documents such as newspaper articles, letters, and photographs. These types of assignments can foster greater engagement with the research process and help students develop a stronger and more vivid understanding of historical context.
At the same time, primary source research can present unique challenges, especially for undergraduate researchers. If your students will be working with primary sources online or in print, consider consulting with a librarian or archivist to determine if relevant materials are available (either from the library or freely online).
In addition, consider the following strategies to help your students:
- Spend class time explaining the definition of a primary source in your discipline and why you’re asking students to find primary sources. Use specific examples to illustrate how students might go about analyzing primary sources and incorporating them into their research projects. Consider that many undergraduate students will lack contextual knowledge when interpreting historical documents.
- Provide students with clear information about the type of primary sources you expect them to find (e.g. newspaper articles; photographs) and where they might find them (e.g. Archives and Special Collections; specific online databases or archives).
- For undergraduate students, consider limiting the number of required primary sources to just one article or photograph. Finding and analyzing primary sources can be very time-consuming, particularly for inexperienced researchers. Also, despite the prevalence of digital archives, most historical documents remain in print form only and may be inaccessible to students working under constraints of time and distance.
- Bring your class to the library or archives for a research instruction session tailored to your students’ needs. Librarians and archivists can help students learn appropriate resources and strategies for primary source research in the context of specific class assignments.