Using Primary Sources in the School Library

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How frequently do your teachers/students use the library to access different types of primary sources? This month we asked this question about the primary sources teachers and students are using in the library. The results reveal the popularity of textual sources, but also yield some surprises and inspiration. In her One-Question Survey column, Dr. Maria Cahill discusses these results and encourages readers to use primary sources as an avenue for collaboration.

We hope you use these surveys to help you reflect on your own practices. Subscribers can view our archive of past surveys here.

survey-3We’ve all heard that a picture is worth a thousand words; thus, it’s not surprising that images are one of the two most frequently accessed primary sources along with written documents.

While it stands to reason that teachers and students in elementary schools would access fewer primary sources than their middle and high school counterparts, as the chart illustrates, the minimal use of visual sources (i.e. images, maps, and video files) in the elementary grades is unexpected. School librarians at any grade level, including elementary, should consider using images, maps, or objects to launch an inquiry unit as Kristin Fontichiaro (2016) proposes, and elementary librarians looking for additional approaches for using primary sources with students should be sure to check out the recently released SLC video workshop “Primary Sources for Elementary” presented by Tom Bober.

Only 15% of the school librarians who participated in the survey reported that teachers and students use statistical data on a regular and frequent basis. This means that the majority of school librarians have yet another venue for collaborating with teachers. Consider the possibilities of using statistical data to bring lessons and units in mathematics alive in meaningful and authentic ways and how doing so will also provide opportunities for students to develop analytic skills (Abilock 2016).

Comments left by quite a few of the 215 participants of the survey point to the use of primary sources for learning and teaching social studies. One school librarian wrote, “I collaborate with the Social Studies teachers on a unit about the Holocaust. I use diaries and oral testimony from the Shoah Foundation. The students are captivated by the personal narratives from victims and survivors. These primary sources are profound and meaningful in ways that other sources cannot reach.” Another school librarian shared, “I introduce the concept of primary sources by showing students the facsimile of the documentation of my grandfather’s entry at Ellis Island in 1908, along with a picture of the ship that brought him, his mother, and three young siblings. Although the records say he was born in “Russia” he was actually born in a small town near the (ever-changing) Lithuanian-Polish border which gives me a chance to explain…why we need to know about maps and that borders change over time.”

Survey participants communicated their appreciation for the wealth of primary sources accessible for no charge through the Library of Congress ( and also indicated satisfaction with the quality of the teacher resources and lesson plans provided through the TPS Teacher Network ( School librarians trying to locate primary sources for social studies teaching and learning might also peruse History Matters ( which Daniel Callison (2016) recommends.

Sadly, several school librarians also pointed to the challenges they face: “In order to integrate primary sources into my students’ learning, their teachers would first have to be unshackled from the mind-numbing canned curriculum they are required to teach; one in which all creativity and choice of materials is sucked out of it; one which is programmed to the minute.” We hope school librarians facing similar situations will be able to use the results from this One Question Survey as one source of evidence to advocate for inquiry-based teaching and learning with primary sources.

Works Cited:

Abilock, Debbie. “Adding Friction. How Can I Teach Students to Think of Numbers as Evidence Rather than Answers?” School Library Connection (March 2016).

Callison, Daniel. “CCSS: Primary Sources for Secondary Social Studies.” School Library Monthly 30, no. 2 (2013).

Fontichiaro, Kristin. “Cross Curriculum. Awakening and Building Prior Knowledge with Primary Sources: See, Think, Wonder.” School Library Monthly 27, no. 1 (2010)

mcahill_09_2014Maria Cahill, MLIS, PhD, is an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky in both the School of Information Science and the Department of Education. She received her master’s degree from the University of South Carolina and her doctorate in education from the University of Tennessee. She is author of numerous papers in such journals as Knowledge Quest, School Libraries Worldwide, and School Library Research and has served in numerous professional leadership positions, including on the Educators of School Librarians Section of the American Association of School Librarians and the American Library Association’s Literacy and Outreach Services Committee.

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