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Posted by on Sep 2, 2009

Primary vs. Secondary Sources in Presentation and Teaching

I get asked this question a lot in my work at a large non-profit academic database: what is the difference between a primary and secondary source? As we move towards new and diverse kinds of content (video, maps, manuscripts, letters, images, 3D models, etc.) and new ways of presenting that content the distinctions between different types of content becomes much more problematic.

But more importantly, what value do they add to the learning and research process? This is an important question that I have attempted to answer in this video, but I am coming from the perspective of a) a librarian. How can we catalog and present this information in ways beneficial to the end user? Do we distinguish visually between the peer-reviewed secondary source material (traditional JSTOR content) or do we present them seamlessly with the new content? ie Are they of equivalent value/function. This is a learning process for sure as nobody seems to have come to a consensus on this.

Original research depends on access to unfettered content like primary sources, so some disciplines have embraced this more than others (ie history, anthropology). Those on the presentation/teaching side have not uniformly embraced this content yet.

But the viewpoint that interests me more is that of b) teacher. How could/can I use these materials to further the learning process, to promote critical thinking and observation, to deepen analytical skills?

To begin this process of promoting primary sources as teaching tools, I felt it first necessary to define primary and secondary source. This proved problematic because there is no hard fast definition that carries across all disciplines and research communities. So, I, an amateur academic proposed (in the video), these two definitions:

1. Primary source- a record
2. Secondary source-commentary

I go into more detail than that, but that is the gist of it. Now if we view secondary sources as commentary, then teachers are presented with real opportunities for critical thinking exercises. If the author is commenting on an event (or even a primary source), a teacher can begin to explore the currents of thinking, the nature of criticism (being inherently subjective), etc. Secondary source commentary is perfectly valid for sure, but a teacher can use these materials to assess viewpoints, bias, observations that lose/gain currency (Pan-Africanism as movement rising/fading, perestroika?-seriously, look it up to see which words fade).

As a former teacher, these are the applications of primary sources that I most care about. Don’t bother with the secondary source commentary until you have investigated the “thing” itself, or at the very least allow the primary source to contextualize the commentary. When dealing with notions of space and time, this is easy. Here is an example of a way in which all matter of content can be presented somewhat convincingly about Timbuktu, that ancient city of legend in Mali. Port all the data together, give it context (map, introductory essay) and present all the slices in little chunks. However, many if not most primary sources are not actual places, but of events, movements, ideas. This becomes problematic for presentation purposes.

As a librarian, I know we as the digital community are some ways away from seeing a perfect representation of this balance between primary/secondary sources and functional/teaching/research spaces online. But there some bold steps out there.

Introducing some new data types into the mix in classrooms is one way teachers can get into the mix of these currents in the academic community. Embed these sources in pedagogy and use them towards your end to promote critical and contextual thinkers.

I will save the discussion on how primary and secondary sources can foster a good understanding of information literacy in a future post.

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