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What are Primary Documents? Or Seeing Myself in the Future's Past

By Ruth Sandwell

In this introduction to historical documents, that can be used from elementary to graduate school, students come up with a list of the kinds of documents that historians of the future might use to understand our world hundreds of years from now, and learn to define these records as “primary documents.” Students conclude the lesson by deciding which kind of document(s) will do the best job. Brief suggestions for other short introductory exercises are included.

1. Give the students the following scenario: A historian of the twenty-third century, feeling that teenagers have been misunderstood throughout time, wants to write a history of teenagers, beginning in early twenty-first-century Canada. The historian wants to know about all aspects of teenage life, from work, family life and formal education to leisure activities, social life and personal issues of concern to the twenty-first-century teenager.

2. Ask students: how do historians learn about the past?

3. Explain that while historians read a lot of things written by other historians, the books and articles they write are based on their own research into evidence created in the past -- called primary documents -- which have been preserved up to the present. Historians use these documents to make INFERENCES about life in the past.

4. Familiarize students with the concept of INFERENCE by asking students what kinds of inferences they might make about a society if they were an alien from another planet who encountered a common object from our world: a soccer ball, a coat or any other commonly used object in the classroom. Examples might include “the society had the technology to create plastics,” or “the society had enough wealth to make a lot of useless objects,” or “people must have loved music.”

5. Students are asked to work in pairs to brainstorm the following questions:

a) What records will individual students in the class leave behind that this historian might use to understand that person’s life?

b) What records about that person’s life will have been created, and might be preserved for that historian to find?

6. After 5-10 minutes, write all of their responses on the board, encouraging students, if needed, with the following suggestions (issues that you might like to raise about the creation, preservation and interpretation of the source are in brackets):

  • diaries and journals (Who will keep them? Will they make it into a public archives, as hundreds of thousands have in the past? What will they tell historians?)
  • e-mails (Will they be preserved? Will they be machine-readable in the future? What will they tell historians?)
  • VISA and other credit card bills (Where will they be stored? Will historians have access to them? What will they tell historians?)
  • home movies (Will the technology still exist to view them? What will they tell historians?)
  • photographs (Who will preserve them? Will they be in public archives? What will they tell historians?)
  • school records (kept by school and then by the provincial archives, as required by law; who will have access to them in the future? If they are kept by individuals, who will preserve them and who will have access to them? What will they tell historians?)
  • school work (How will it be preserved? What will it tell historians?)
  • clothing (How will someone in the future understand what the clothing means?)
  • music (How will someone in the future understand what the music means? Will the technology exist to listen to it?)
  • court records (Juvenile court records may become part of the public domain after 100 years.)
  • census records (Every Canadian will appear on the census if they are in Canada in a census year, even though their individual information will not be available to historians for 96 years. Recent laws mean that from 2001 onwards, Canadians must specify if they want historians to have access to their information.)
  • birth, marriage and death records (What might these tell someone in the future about teenage life, i.e., AIDS statistics, car accidents, teenage pregnancy, etc.?)

7. EXPLAIN that these records are called primary documents: those records created in the past, at or close to the time under study, which have survived into the present and provide us with the evidence we need to understand the past.

8. Divide students once again into groups of 2 or 3 and distribute the following chart. Give the students the following task:

Choose three sources from the list on the board (or other sources they can think of) that would give a historian of the future THE BEST understanding of their life, and explain why.

On an overhead, go over one example with the students (VISA bills, for example), filling in the spaces as demonstrated, or as students suggest, filling in all three columns:

Source: What information/ evidence about me will this primary source give to historians of the future? What makes this “good evidence” about me and my life? What inferences about teenage life might the historian make from this evidence?
1) Best source VISA bills!
How I spent my money, or at least some of it The things that I buy are a good reflection of what I like, and what I care about — teenagers like to buy things
— teenagers had money to buy things (i.e., they were not totally poor)
— teenagers bought different things from each other and from adults
2) Second best
3) Third best

10. After students have completed the sheet, select three or four groups to present their first choice, and discuss.