Sharing primary sources can be a tool for research, teaching, and public history. A researcher at a workshop or conference may share a source to help peers understand the nature of both the questions and the evidence they are confronting, and to get ideas on how best to interpret that evidence. Teachers assign primary sources to give students practice in historical analysis. Students can find and share primary sources to gain experience in research and discussion leading. And public historians value primary sources as the most vivid means to connect audiences with the past.
I hope the following suggestions are useful for all of these contexts.
Sometimes you might want to assign a long primary source. For instance, modern, annotated editions of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass can run close to 300 pages. For a workshop, classroom, or exhibit, however, it is often useful to present a source that someone can read, watch, or listen to in just a few minutes. A thousand words, an image or two, or five minutes of audio or video can generate a discussion lasting half an hour.
Some sources are born short, but others need thoughtful editing to get down to the right length. The National Archives’ “Teaching With Documents” website, for example, features a petition by Amelia Bloomer, which is only seventeen lines its entirely. But Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” Radio Address runs over eleven minutes, so the Archives has cut it down to a 48-second excerpt.
Look for sources that, while brief, present enough complexity to sustain a discussion. There’s no simple rule for this. For instance, I’ve found that twentieth-century political cartoons are often blunt and simple. Either you get the joke or you don’t, but after thirty seconds, there’s not much to talk about. By contrast, late-nineteenth century cartoons, such as those appearing in Puck, can be riotous blends of symbolism, labels, and commentary that could take a classroom of good students a full period to unpack. Straight news reports tend not to work as well as editorials, speeches, advertisements, sermons, and other efforts to persuade, rather than merely inform. One exception is if a researcher provides conflicting reports of the same event.
If you are preparing discussion questions, make sure they can be answered with the source at hand, so that you are asking your audience to analyze the source closely, not ignore it in favor of other knowledge. And while you may have some preliminary ideas about what you want your readers to gain from the source, it can be nice (especially in research workshops) to share a source that baffles you, so you are asking others to help unravel a mystery.
When possible, format sources to be accessible by as many people as possible. Ideally, you will find or create (by typing or optical character recognition) editable, digital text of textual sources. Some of your intended readers may be unable to read text that only appears as a photograph of a handwritten or even printed document, either because of vision impairment, poor image quality, or an unfamiliarity with cursive or the handwriting of previous eras. Newspaper articles that ran as long columns on broadsheet paper will appear tiny if reduced to fit onto letter-sized pages. Retype these, or at the very least cut them up and enlarge them with scissors, tape, and a photocopier, or their software equivalents. If possible, provide text equivalents for audio and captions for video. Written descriptions of images is harder, if the very point of the exercise is to figure out how to describe the image.
Historians often conduct research by reading extensively in a few types of sources. When they want to share their work, they can then choose sources typical of those they explore. For example, in her 2017 article, “The Rise and Fall and Rise of Civilizations: Indian Intellectual Culture during the Removal Era,” Christina Snyder read essays written by students at the Choctaw Academy in the 1820s, 1830s, and 1840s, along with the textbooks those students read. To suggest ways that classroom teachers could present the topic using primary sources, Snyder selected key pages from two textbooks, and three essays from among the many she studied.
Of course, some sources—like the FDR radio address—are unique. In such cases, it may be helpful to explain their singular importance and the value of an especially close reading.
Because historians rely on context to understand sources fully, it is crucial to cite every source formally and completely. If you can guide readers to the original context in which the source appears—for instance, by providing a link to a newspaper database—so much the better. Whether or not such a link is available, keep in mind that a source without citation is as worthless as a fossil removed from the surrounding strata. Cite your sources with the same care you would take for any other form of scholarship.