Teaching Constant Motion: The Job of Railway Post Office Clerks with Primary Sources
What are Primary Sources?
Most families have a box of keepsakes gathering dust in an attic or basement that have a special meaning. When we have authentic objects that link to memories from the past we cherish those items. These items can rekindle emotions from the past and families keep them to share with family and friends as time goes on. It is devastating when families lose irreplaceable items from the past. The Library of Congress has a "memory box" as well, filled with items that are shared electronically with the world. Some are personal, like a letter shared within a family or a photo passed through generations. Sharing these primary sources offers a glimpse into our daily lives and local events that may not be preserved in other places. Some items are of historical significance, while others only hold special meaning for certain individuals.
What are primary sources? Primary sources are original items that have survived from the past. These items can be written or typed documents, letters, photographs, sheet music, audio or video clips and more. These artifacts were part of a direct personal experience of a specific time or event. Each primary source has a creator and each creator has a unique perspective. Sharing primary sources connects others to our personal histories. Teaching with primary sources is an initiative of the Library of Congress that celebrates the power of teaching by engaging students and showing them that history is REAL and the people, places and events of the past impact us today. Primary sources offer insight into who we are and the communities we live in today.
Why teach with primary sources? Examining primary sources in the classroom gives students a powerful sense of history and the complexity of the past. Helping students analyze primary sources guides them toward higher-order thinking and better critical thinking and analysis skills. Diverse sources offer multiple perspectives on various issues of the past and present. History, after all, deals with matters often debated by participants. Interpretations of the past are discussed among historians, policy makers, politicians, and ordinary citizens. by working with primary sources, students may become better informed and involved in these debates.
Primary sources are snippets of history, often incomplete and without context. They require students to be analytical, to look at sources purposefully and determine what else they need to know to make inferences about the materials. Primary sources help students relate in a personal way to events of the past, coming away with a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events within and from the family to national level. In analyzing primary sources, students move from concrete observations and facts to synthesizing information and considering point of view. What is the intent of the speaker, of the photographer, of the musician? How does that influence interpretation or understanding of the evidence?
It may be difficult to understand that we all participate in making history every day, that each of us in the course of our lives leave behind primary sources that family or scholars may examine as a record of "the past."