Selecting Primary Sources: Criteria for Classroom Use

Selected Library of Congress collections
Primary source analysis promotes information literacy, a vital skill for competent citizens. When selecting primary sources to use with students, keep the criteria listed below in mind to ensure valuable learning experiences.



  • Will your students want to dig deep, ask questions, and learn more about the primary source?
  • Is the source interesting?
  • Is the source relevant to a current unit or theme?
  • What primary source type(s) will best engage students?

Student Identity

  • Does the primary source reflect students’ cultures and lived experiences?
  • Does the source encourage students to reflect on their own or another’s culture?
  • Does the source allow your students to see themselves in the history?
  • Does the source reinforce stereotypes that might cause harm to your students?


  • Is the content of the primary source suitable for your students?
  • Is the source too simple or too complex?


  • Will the length of the primary source affect student comprehension?
  • Would an excerpt be more appropriate than the source in its entirety?


  • Is the vocabulary used in the primary source at an appropriate level?
  • Will your students be able to decode the text or decipher the audio?
  • Will outdated terms need to be defined?

Background knowledge

  • Will students be familiar with any of the people or personal, social, cultural, or political events happening around the time the primary source was created?
  • Will students need to be introduced to certain information in order to interact successfully with the source?
Note: You may choose to have students analyze primary sources specifically to gain a better understanding of student background knowledge on a particular topic.

Contextual clues

  • Are there clues within the primary source (not the bibliographic record) that will help students place the source into historical context?
  • Will students be able to identify clothing or technology from a certain time period?

Creator & creation date

  • Are the creator’s name and creation date available on the primary source or in the bibliographic record?
  • Would additional information about the creator be useful when analyzing this source?
  • Was the source created close to the time that it represents?

Additional bibliographic information

  • How detailed is the bibliographic record?
  • Does the bibliographic record provide historical context?
  • When and what bibliographic information should you reveal to students?
  • Will Library catalog notes or other markings distract students or interfere with their ability to place the source into historical context?
  • Do your students need a source with a more descriptive bibliographic record to help with further research?

Audience, purpose & bias

  • Does the primary source provide enough clues to identify the intended audience and purpose (idea, agenda, etc.)?
  • Is there evidence of a particular bias?

Personal bias

  • Consider your own beliefs about a historical event or issue. By selecting a particular primary source, are you inadvertently presenting one point of view over another?
  • If you plan to use an excerpt of a source, is the meaning of the entire source preserved?


  • When using more than one primary source, have you selected items that present different perspectives?
  • What types of sources will best help students construct knowledge?

Source quality

  • Is text legible?
  • Will handwriting impact your students’ understanding?
  • Is the image sharp and bright enough?
  • Is the audio loud and clear enough?
  • Does background noise interfere with spoken words?
  • Will students understand accents?
  • Is there a transcript?
Note: Some digitized manuscripts and audio files from the Library’s collections are accompanied by transcripts. Although some consider transcripts a step removed from primary sources, transcripts are a tool that can make it easier to use certain sources with students.

Physical format

  • Are you able to zoom into details on the digitized primary source?
  • Can your print out these details or is the primary source best used in its digital format?

File format

  • Are you using the highest quality primary source available on the Library’s website?
  • Is the source clear enough for students to locate important details and make reflections about what’s happening?
Note: Images on the Library website often have several file formats, including high resolution JPEG and TIFF files. Consider using a larger file type when projecting or printing out sources. For higher quality audio, use the WAV format. For higher quality video, use the MPEG format.

Instructional goal

  • What is the overall primary source activity or project goal?
  • What questions are you trying to answer?
  • What problem are students trying to solve or what product are they trying to create?

Activity types

  • How will the primary source(s) be used (as the basis for class discussion, written reports, in-class presentations, role playing, etc.)?

Classroom management

  • Are the primary sources best used in individual, small group, or class activities?


  • How much time must I allocate for this primary source activity or project?


  • What output(s) will this primary source activity or project generate?
  • Will the activity or project be assessed quantitatively, qualitatively, or both?

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