Written by Evan Spencer, Graduate Assistant
In the past, archival documents were largely inaccessible to the general public. Records were seen as scientific “evidence” of an important event, person, or place. In order to understand this evidence, a person had to be trained in the science of historical research. The public was not to be trusted with the primary sources. Leave that up to the professionals!
Recently, historians and archivists are more willing to share documents—and their interpretation—with the public. The years of restricted access to archival collections have been gradually replaced by open access. Archivists now encourage the use of their collections through social media, exhibit design, blog posts, lesson plans, and much more!
Using primary sources can be overwhelming, but it is also richly rewarding. There is nothing quite like finding a letter that supports your theory after digging through box after box trying to find it. Unlike a secondary source (such as reading a book, a magazine article, or hearing a lecture in class), primary sources encourage students to use the evidence to draw their own conclusions about history. When students analyze primary sources, they engage in critical thinking about the past and their relationship with the past. Using primary sources is also a way to inspire and excite students about history in ways that textbooks and lectures may not.
At the Albert Gore Research Center, we are currently creating lesson plans based on our holdings. In the meantime, I would like to demonstrate how students and teachers can utilize primary sources to engage with history, using the Civil Rights Issue Mail of the Albert Gore Sr. Senate Papers.
Here are four letters, each asking Senator Gore to vote a specific way on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Click on each letter to enlarge it.
Here are some questions to ask about the letters:
- Why do you think that these letters were written?
- What evidence from the letter helps you know why it was written? (Quote from the document)
- How does each author try to persuade Senator Gore to vote for or against the bill?
- What do you see that you didn’t expect?
- List three things the documents teach you about life in America in 1964.
- Write a question to the author that is left unanswered by the document.
- Compare/Contrast the letters
Students may answer these questions in a multitude of ways– That the letters were written to convey disgust, either at the bill’s existence or the fact that the bill was necessary; That the authors use personal stories, intellectual ideas, and their personal opinions to try to convince Gore to vote one way or the other; That life in America in 1964 was shaped by racial confrontations. Part of the allure of primary source research is that each student may observe very different things out of these four documents. When students engage with primary sources in this way, they are conducting historical inquiry. They are also developing the key skill of critical thinking.
For more information on using primary sources in teaching, please consult the National Archives’ Lesson Plans, the MTSU Lesson Plans, and the Library of Congress’s Lesson Plans. Also, be on the lookout for the AGRC’s lesson plans, coming later this semester.