Learning From Primary Sources

Working with historical documents helps students directly understand the need for reading the past in its own context, which is critical to any good research. Every document presents a point of view that is conditioned by time, place and other surrounding circumstances. Documents also present concepts that can be difficult to understand. Presenting students with challenges to understanding and then showing them how to interpret these documents through reference sources and other documents is an important pedagogical exercise.

The easy availability of documents through Early Canadiana Online (ECO), a major primary resource, can help students make their own interpretations of the past. Students can use documents to test the generalizations made in their textbooks.

Certain issues always crop up in a nation’s history. There are certain fundamental problems that either cannot be eradicated or resolved over many years. In the case of Canada, geography and climate are two such issues. The timber trade (or, in the present-day, the softwood lumber issue) is another. In general classes, it is useful to draw from such a general theme and examine it through government publications. ECO features innumerable Canada-U.S. timber dispute documents that can be shown to students that refer as far back as the 1820s. (See for instance, p. 94 of the Journal of the House of Assembly of the province of New-Brunswick … 1826 or pages 261 and 369 of Correspondence respecting the British North American fisheries, and the commercial convention with the United States (1852-1854), or pages 19, 20, 28-30 of North American boundary: part I correspondence relating to the boundary between the British possessions in North America and the United States of America, under the treaty of 1783.)

There are hundreds of documents to choose from that can create interest in students. One such example is paper no. 37 in the Sessional papers, third session of the eighth Parliament of the Province of Canada, session 1865. This sessional paper on schooling has useful and interesting information such as the salary of women and men teachers. The spread of difference between the two is revealing and can be used as a basis for the teaching of equality of the sexes historically.

Class exercises

Primary sources are the raw materials of history and a requirement in historical research. The librarian’s work in “selling” documents for research is still somewhat uphill, and this is where ECO can be used to remedy the situation.

The librarian can point out to students that working with primary sources such as government documents is a wonderfully useful window into remnants of the past or another world as well as an opportunity to construct their own vision of the past.

The lecture form of teaching is not always the best method for getting this across to students. Often a hunt or a quiz (along with some basic research explanations) works better. Such teaching methods must be done in consultation with the faculty member to be truly effective. The best “hunt” can be to use a topic from the assigned text and have the students find a primary source the author has not used in creating it. The students then have to take that source and consider how the text’s interpretations could have been affected had they used the new source. Would their arguments be reinforced, revised or refuted?

This process engages students to participate directly in the same process in which the author engaged, and helps them make better sense of the past as reality. They begin to understand what it means to construct history which has multiple implications for students learning.


Have students hunt for a series of documents on a particular topic and then have them construct their own histories based on these documents and draw their own conclusions about the past.

Take a current television program such as the CBC’s Greatest Canadian series and ask students to use ECO to find a great Canadian not mentioned in the top 50 and then explain why the student believes that this person should have been on the list. The support for their choice should come from ECO documents.

An important aspect to a documents class is to ask students to consider some key questions before looking at a document in class. Their answers to the questions will help them focus on how to find documents and use them. Some possible questions:

How would you find this item if it had not been given to you?

Could you find a document related to it or on the same topic? Does it differ in its interpretation of the same topic?

Why was this document saved? Does this document effectively reflect the times?

Does it agree with or refute your knowledge of the topic?

What does it tell us about the values, beliefs, institutions and problems for the individual or groups or society as a whole?

Who was the intended audience?

Vivienne Monty is Senior Librarian at Frost Library, York University. She is the former Head of the Government and Business Library and was also the chief editor for the creation of two specialized periodical indexes, the Monetary Times and Maclean’s Magazine.