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EDEL 420 - Social Sciences in the Elementary School

Lib guide for EDEL 420: Social Sciences in the Elementary School

What exactly is a primary source?

Before trying to find primary resources, we need to understand what they are. 

Scholars define primary resources as documents or physical objects that were created during the period of study. This definition is a bit vague, so in this article I'm going to explain what exactly constitutes a primary source. 

First- documents and physical objects. Defining documents is tricky, to this day the question "what is a document" isn't entirely settled. For our purposes, think of a document as something produced by the person or organization you are trying to study. Examples include: diaries, autobiographies, speeches, letters and official records. 

Next question- do images count as primary sources? Yes, as long as they are directly related to the thing you are trying to study. For example: a photograph of an Indian taken in the early 20th century is a primary source. Photographs of indian art are also excellent primary sources. Be careful though, images of Indians drawn or painted (especially if they were recently created) are not primary sources. 

The best way to determine whether or not something is a primary source is to refer to the "period of study". If you are studying, for example, the Yakima Nation and find an old image of a Yakima chief from the early 20th century, that's a primary source because the photo was taken during the period you are studying. 

Finding primary sources

If you want to look beyond the databases listed on the previous page, you'll need some tips on finding primary sources. This is often the most difficult part of research, so don't worry if you get stuck. This box offers some helpful tips and tricks I've learned from my own experience. 

  1. Google will not solve your problems. Google excels at finding websites that have high page ranks and are linked to by other sites. Google searches do not extend into proprietary databases, and although Google is pretty powerful, it does not index the entire internet. 
  2. Think about organizations that keep records. Records mean primary sources, and many organizations that keep records want to help people access their information. Museums, government/tribal websites, archival collections are all good places to look for primary sources. 
  3. If you get stuck, ask for help. Librarians spend years learning how to maximize search strategies. If you're stuck, they can help!
  4. By all means use wikipedia, but be smart about it. Wikipedia is great for answering basic questions, but terrible at accomodating articles with competing points of view or topics that require in depth investigation. Don't cite a Wikipedia article for a class, but you can use it to find a list of federally recognized Indian tribes in Washington State. 


Don't believe everything you read. Primary sources recount an interpretation of an event, they do not describe the event-as-it-happened. Remember that the person who created your document had opinions, agendas, and in some cases may be misleading you. As a scholar, you need to think critically about a document before you accept it's version of events at face value. Here's a helpful checklist to consider as you evaluate primary sources 

  1. Who created the document? What was their profession, values, beliefs, anything that might influence how they narrated a historical event
  2. Can you find two versions of the same event? For example, if you select Marcus Whitman's letters, can you also find documents or accounts of the Whitman Mission from his wife, or the native population? 
  3. Where did you find the document? If you searching for images of the Samish tribe, images you find in SAM or the tribal website are probably more credible than the images you find in a google search.