Using primary sources is a powerful tool for engaging students in the study of history and through the Web, students and researchers have greater access to primary source materials as greater numbers of credible sources post these materials online.
As explained in the Teacher Guide for Safe Passage, "primary sources create a direct link to the past, and humanize history by supplying the language, emotions, attitudes and values of the people who lived that history.
"In general, primary sources are firsthand, or eyewitness, accounts of an event or the original work of a person. The person who wrote or created the document actually witnessed the event, participated in it or lived at the time it happened. Because people create primary source documents, they invariably have a specific perspective, purpose and/or interpretation. Primary sources show that any account of an event, no matter how impartially presented it appears to be, is essentially subjective. It is also important to recognize that people who later read or use primary source documents bring to them their own biases, created by their own personal situations and the culture and times in which they live."
Examples of primary sources that students can find for the Underground Railroad include letters, slave diaries, court records, government legislation and business receipts. Through field trips, students can also observe artifacts from that era.
When studying the Underground Railroad, students may find that primary sources are not easy to find. The success of the Underground Railroad depended heavily on secrets. If word leaked out, conductors and abolitionists would be punished and slaves would lose valuable assistance on their quest for freedom. Another reason for the lack of primary resources is that very few slave owners provided an education for the people they owned.
The Teacher Guide for Safe Passage also offers a word of caution about Underground Railroad sources. "Few contemporary documents related to the Underground Railroad itself survived. Most sources that have come down to us today are autobiographies or personal accounts written years after the described events occurred. This distance in time leads to possible distortions and inaccuracies. Biases based on different points of view can be enlightening and problematic at the same time. For example, newspaper accounts after the Civil War often embellished the stories of abolitionists and freedom seekers. Even those involved in the activities sometimes had trouble separating fact from fiction."
The proliferation of material on the web emphasizes the need for evaluation of primary sources. Students that find and incorporate these resources should examine them to determine their authenticity, including that of the person or organization providing them.
Also, it is important to study primary sources in relation to the historical events that occurred at the time the documents were created, as well as the culture of the time. Such study will lead to a greater understanding and appreciation of the primary sources that are uncovered.
Below you will find a list of links to websites that contain information and guidelines on finding, analyzing, interpreting and using primary and secondary sources. Safe Passage also provides a handout for students to help them analyze primary sources. (Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.)
Library Research Using Primary Sources provides an excellent primer for students. The University of California at Berkeley offers both definition and lists of primary and secondary sources, how to find the right reference source, and strategies for finding primary sources. While the material is geared toward the sources in the UC Berkeley library, the same type of collections and reference sources can be found at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County. The online guide is also available in PDF form for printing.
History in the Raw is a website provided by NARA, the National Archives and Records Administration. This page offers information on why it is important for teachers to incorporate primary sources in the classroom, and has suggestions for teachers on where to find them.
History Basics Understanding Primary Sources from North Park University in Chicago provides a list of questions students can use as they examine primary sources to help them interpret and better understand the material they find.
History Matters - Making Sense of Oral History presents an overview of oral history and ways historians use it, tips on what questions to ask when reading or listening to oral history interviews, a sample interpretation of an interview, an annotated bibliography, and a guide to finding and using oral history online.
History Matters - Scholars in Action presents case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence by using two abolitionist speeches.
The National Park Service features a complete guide to using primary resources specifically in researching the Underground Railroad. This page covers national, state and local resources, oral tradition, autobiographies and memoirs, archeological resources, and local histories and records. NPS also offers ideas on finding information in each area, and then takes you through a checklist on how to interpret primary and secondary resources.
Characteristics of Primary and Secondary Sources is part of Ontario History Quest, and offers a chart for students in middle school that explains ways to examine sources and differentiate primary from secondary sources.
Using Primary Sources on the Web was written by the Instruction & Research Services Committee of the Reference and User Service Association History Section in the American Library Association. This webpage shows students examples of primary sources, ways to find these sources on the web and how to evaluate the sources students find, and, finally ways to cite the sources they use.
The Ohio Historical Society provides a lesson for teachers on Using Primary Source Documents in the Classroom.
ERIC Digests also has a primer titled "Using Primary Sources on the Internet To Teach and Learn History" in which they provide links to exemplary websites with primary sources.
Forever Free is a website provided by Nova Southeastern University in coordination with an exhibit on Abraham Lincoln in early 2004. The site is worthy of note because of the links it provides to online sources that can be used to help students interpret primary sources, including American Culture during the Civil War.