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Guide to Archival & Primary Source Instruction

A guide for teaching faculty and staff to learn about archival and primary source instruction at the University of Regina

Learning with Primary Source Materials

This page outlines the main benefits for learning with primary source materials; how it can be useful to instructors, and how it can equip students with critical thinking and research skills. 

Introduction to Primary Source Literacy

Primary sources require interpretation. Without additional explanation, students must rely on their own investigative skills to understand the material, moving them from a passive role to an active one. Students are required to participate in the research process in a hands-on way, prompting them to consider a number of questions, including:

  • What other sources are needed to understand the material?
  • What are the biases of the material?
  • Where does it come from?
  • Who is the creator?
  • What does it say about the time period during which it was created? 

Engaging in research in this way gives students agency as they can choose their own areas or frameworks of research interest. Students often report feeling emotionally connected to the primary sources they interact with, as these sources tend to give insight into the period of study in a personal way. 

Students who are comfortable assessing and interpreting primary source materials also develop a deeper understanding of academic arguments. Participating in the research process helps them create their own arguments in the future, and it also helps them critically analyze secondary sources as they become familiar with good research practices. 

Benefits to Learning with Primary Source Materials

In 2018, the SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Taskforce on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy defined four core competencies associated with primary source learning, which are paraphrased below. 

Skills gained by working with primary source materials:

  • Analytic: Students use and synthesize primary sources to develop arguments. This process requires students to interrogate the source, understand its narrative and biases, and situate it within a larger historical context in order to interpret it in a meaningful way. 
  • Ethical: Students are required to consider the ethical uses of sources in research, including privacy rights, copyright, and potential access restrictions.
  • Theoretical: In assessing which primary source materials are available, students also assess the archives as a whole. They are prompted to consider the absences and gaps in the collection and the factors that contributed to them. 
  • Practical: Students gain hands-on experience researching and finding sources relevant to their research, and gain an understanding of how to cite them properly.