Do Primary Sources Matter?
|We use primary sources to
know and understand what life was like in
a different time. We learn from them not
just what people did and said, but also
what they thought and believed. Some of
their ideas may seem silly to us; others
may seem offensive and even hurtful.
This is especially true of attitudes which
cause harm in our own communities, such
as the belief that some people are naturally
better than others. It is important, however,
that primary sources not be changed by taking
out parts we find upsetting. If we do that,
they will not be a guide to what the past
was like, but to what we wish it could have
is Right About Wrong Ideas?
|In reading ideas we don’t
like, we can try to understand why people
of a different time might have thought this
way. It also helps us recognize behaviour
that we do not wish to repeat. Can you think
of ideas we have today that people two centuries
from now might consider wrong?
For example, you might come across records
which give the impression that some fur
traders thought that Aboriginal people were
lazy*. This is not because they were –
in fact, there are plenty of other records
that show how hard aboriginal people worked.
And it may not have been because the fur
traders were mean and unkind men.
British and Aboriginal cultures viewed work
and time differently. Aboriginals worked
when work was there to be done. They saw
no value in working just for the sake of
working. To the British, in contrast, time
was something to be used, not wasted. They
valued keeping busy. They looked at Aboriginal
people and saw what was different as being
Which culture resembles your life? Do you
like keeping busy? Or do you prefer to work
hard and then sit back and just enjoy some
down time? Look at your own family—what
values about time and work do they show
in daily life? Do you ever look at other
people and judge their differences as being
|Primary sources offer an
excellent opportunity to teach about critical
reading of documents. Before approaching
the materials with your students, be sure
to reinforce the “Five Ws and an H”
when students are using the documents:
- WHO created the document? (was it
a person? a business?)
- WHAT is it? (is it a diary? a letter?
- WHEN was it created? (is it dated?
are there other ways of determining
what time period it is from?)
- WHERE was it created? (are there
any clues to tell you where?)
- WHY was it created? (is it a record
of a transaction? a personal memoir?)
- HOW might this be interpreted differently
Primary sources can help to bring history
to life through the exciting and personal
stories they tell. They can be an excellent
teaching tool when approached with the
proper resources for reading and interpreting
Carpenter, Cecelia Svinth. Fort Nisqually:
A Documented History of Indian and British
Tahoma Research Service, 1986, p. 43.
for the Classroom