Exploring Primary Sources

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The purpose of this activity is to develop students’ skills in distinguishing between primary and secondary sources, and explore how primary sources can deepen understanding of civics and history. Students will examine online collections at the Library of Congress Web site and discover the wealth of resources available from these collections.

Focusing on Library of Congress Collections:

Recommended Grade Level

Grades 8-12


Civics/Government, Media Studies


Generally, this lesson connects to standards on civic ideals and practices and historical and social studies analysis skills.

National Standard: Time Continuity and Change

Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of the ways human beings view themselves in and over time, so that the learner can:

Middle Grades:

  1. identify and use processes important to reconstructing and reinterpreting the past, such as using a variety of sources; providing, validating, and weighing evidence for claims; checking credibility of sources; and searching for causality;
  2. use knowledge of facts and concepts drawn from history, along with methods of historical inquiry, to inform decision-making about and action-taking on public issues.

High School:

  1. systematically employ processes of critical historical inquiry to reconstruct and reinterpret the past, such as using a variety of sources and checking their credibility, validating and weighing evidence for claims, and searching for causality;
  2. apply ideas, theories, and modes of historical inquiry to analyze historical and contemporary developments, and to inform and evaluate actions concerning public policy issues.


This activity should take two 60-minute class periods.

Activity Objectives

Understanding Objectives: WHAT students will understand

Students will understand:

  • how to use resources available through the Library of Congress to study issues related to public perceptions of the work of Congress.

Process Objectives: HOW students will learn

Students will actively:

  • compare the features and uses of primary and secondary resources in the field of historical research;
  • analyze primary source documents available through the Library of Congress related to the study of civics and American government: and
  • explain the significance of President Washington’s Farewell Address of 1797 in the evolution of the two-party political system.

Activity Materials

NOTE: Teachers should preview all sites to ensure they are age-appropriate for their students. At the time of publication, all URLs were valid.

Digital Resources from the Library of Congress

Prepare for projection

Prepare for projection or duplication:

Digital Resources from the Center on Congress at Indiana University

Prepare for projection

Equipment and Other Supplies


The legislative branch of the Federal Government. Congress consists of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
A group of residents represented by an elected official.
A professional scholar who studies history. A historian constructs the past from primary source evidence and organizes and analyzes the information to draw conclusions based on that evidence.
historical method
The techniques and guidelines by which historians critically examine the records of the past.
A document or inscription written in the hand of the person who created it.
Someone affiliated with, or partial to, a particular political party. Partisans argue in favor of their party’s position, and seek to protect its interests.
political party
An organization that seeks to gain control of government by organizing people who share the same views on issues and by running candidates for public office. The two major political parties in the United States are the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.
popular sovereignty
The idea that ultimate political power or authority rests with the people.
primary source
A primary source is something that was created in the time under study. A primary source is an original work written by someone who witnessed or wrote close to an event.
representative democracy
In a representative democracy, citizens choose a small number of people to represent their interests and negotiate differences on their behalf.
secondary source
A secondary source is created using information provided by somebody else. Secondary sources are often created with some distance from the event.

Procedures and Learning Experiences

I. Introduction to the Work of Historians

  1. Write the term “historical research method” on the board or chart paper and list the following steps below it. If possible, hide this information from students until you are ready to discuss it.
    • Identify a problem or a need for historical information.
    • Gather information and resources related to the problem or need.
    • Check the validity of the information.
    • Organize and analyze the information to draw conclusions based on the evidence.
    • Write a clear narrative explaining the conclusions or arguing your point of view.
  2. Project the full-length portrait of President George Washington as you briefly explain the work of historians in the following manner.
    • Have you ever considered a career in history? What do you think the career of a historian entails? How are professional historians different than history “buffs” or enthusiasts?
    • Professional historians, unlike amateurs and history enthusiasts, use a systematic approach to solve problems of the past. Called the historical method, this approach involves a step-by-step analysis of evidence (or clues) of the past.
  3. Uncover the steps of the historical method you wrote on the board earlier and explain that the steps in the historical method involve a complex and formal process, but students will use this simplified version.
  4. Explain that the activity for this lesson will give students the opportunity to apply the historical method as they learn about how American politics developed into what we call a two-party system.
  5. Explain that the class will work together to examine a digital resource from the Library of Congress: an open letter President George Washington wrote to the American people when he left office in 1797.
  6. Project or duplicate and distribute Washington’s Farewell Address. Explain that this is an example of what historians call a “holographic” document, which means it was written by hand, not reproduced at a print shop.
  7. Allow students to read the first paragraph on their own. If you’re projecting this image, let them get as close to the image as possible. NOTE: A transcript of the first paragraph is provided here for the teacher’s use. Unique spellings are President Washington’s own.

    To the People of the United States
    Friends and Fellow Citizens,
    The period for a new election for a Citizen to administer the executive government of the United States, being not far distant, and the time actually arrived, when your thoughts must be employed in designating the person, who is to be cloathed with that important trust, it appears to me proper, especially as it may conduce to a more distinct exprefsion of the public voice, that I should now apprise you of the resolution I have formed, to decline being considered among the number of those, out of whom a choice is to be made.

  8. Guide students in examining the document as an historian would do, using the following questions.
    • This document is written in President Washington’s own handwriting. Would you say it is more or less reliable as a reference than a printed copy would be? Why?
    • Can you think of any disadvantages to historians in viewing holographic documents?
  9. Have students transcribe (make a copy of) President Washington’s opening paragraph. You may want to allow them to work on the transcription in pairs.
  10. Ask for a few volunteers to read their interpretation of President Washington’s opening paragraph. Then continue the discussion of the letter with the following questions.
    • Is President Washington’s handwriting easy to read? What did you notice about the spelling, formation of certain letters, and punctuation?
    • What was the purpose of this letter to the American people?
  11. Provide students with the following information to prepare them for the next activity:
    • The President used this last farewell to warn his fellow citizens of what he considered some potential threats to the new nation.
    • One of his worries was that different sections of the country were constantly at odds: north against south, west against east, and city dwellers against farmers.
  12. Jump to page 240 of Washington’s Farewell Address, and explain that the next two pages of President Washington’s address contain another warning to the American people.
  13. Divide students into pairs and allow each team the opportunity to transcribe his text, beginning with the second paragraph of page 240 and continuing to the end of page 241.
  14. Have teams collaborate in following the historical method to create a historian’s position statement about the significance of this section of President Washington’s address.

II. Comparing Primary and Secondary Resources

  1. [ONLINE] Use a projection device to show the entire class the opening screen of the Exploring Primary Sources activity. Ask a volunteer to read the introduction aloud. Notice that this screen includes a “Next” link in the bottom, right corner of the screen, as well as three additional tabs across the top. You must click on the “Next” link to finish exploring the “About Primary Resources” tab. Go to the second screen and have volunteers read the definitions of primary and secondary resources, discussing the examples provided.
  2. Complete this first tab as a whole-class activity, discussing the difference between primary and secondary sources as you progress through the “Test Your Knowledge” activity.
  3. The introductory section ends with Curator Sara W. Duke’s 2-minute, 45-second comments about the importance of primary resources for studying about the past. Do not continue through the remaining three tabs at this time.
  4. Ask students to explain why primary sources require people to be analyzers rather than passive receivers of information; to examine and evaluate the source of the information rather than accept what is written without question.
  5. Explain the difference between secondary and primary resources in another way. Ask students to find, in their US history textbooks, information about the inventor of the cotton gin, Eli Whitney.
    • They may find information such as: “Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin and had to fight to stop others from infringing on his patent.”
  6. Now project the 1812 letter to the House of Representatives and ask what additional information they can discover about Eli Whitney’s personality and feelings about patent infringements.
  7. [ONLINE] Return to the Exploring Primary Sources activity and explore the Bonus Army tab together. The remainder of this activity will be used in the following section.

III. Exploring Resources at the Library of Congress

  1. Review with students a few Library of Congress materials pertaining to the study of civics and American government. Describe the explanatory information listed below it and ask students to list some examples of each type.
  2. [ONLINE] Divide the class into groups of two or three students and have them return to the Exploring Primary Sources activity. They will work together to explore the Library Collections tab, examining and reviewing assets from each resource type.

Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies, National Council for the Social Studies, 1994.