November 17, 2022

Selecting Primary Sources That Deal with Difficult Issues

Last Updated on October 13, 2022

Lynchings by states and counties in the United States, 1900-1931

Primary sources bring history to life but life can be harsh. Teachers need to be prepared for primary sources that may include, as Library of Congress Educational Resource Specialist Danna Bell wrote in the Teaching with the Library of Congress blog, “material that would shock, anger, disgust, stun, frustrate or annoy”. But they also provide incredible learning opportunities as primary source expert and TPS Teachers Network Coordinator Mary Johnson noted in a comment to Ms. Bell’s blog post, “I never shy away from sensitive content because I believe we need to promote critical thinking around primary sources, no matter how ugly. That said, we should be aware of the age and maturity levels of our particular students when selecting primary sources.”

Before introducing any primary source to students, be sure to thoroughly review all sources yourself. You will need to consider whether the sources are appropriate for the maturity and skill level of your students (for more information, read Selecting Primary Sources: Criteria for Classroom Use).

Once you have selected sources from a variety of perspectives, help students to consider historical context in addition to the issue under study. For more suggestions and advice for teaching using primary sources that deal with difficult issues, please read the informative blog posts linked to below as well as a great page put together by American Journeys, a collaborative project of the Wisconsin Historical Society and National History Day and another useful post by Lauren S. Brown on MiddleWeb.

Teacher-selected primary sources reflecting difficult/controversial topics TPS Teachers Network

RISE analysis tool & RISE analysis guide Barat Education Foundation & DePaul University

Teaching with the Library of Congress blog posts by


More Selecting primary sources posts


  1. Shirley Leclerc says

    I often struggle to find primary sources on difficult topics simply because of the terms used. Currently, my students are reading Of Mice and Men, and we are looking for information on treatment of mentally ill from the 1930s. While not politically correct, the term used then is retarded but even so, finding information has been very difficult. Do you have suggestions on locating items that would be appropriate for 9th grade students?

    Thank you,
    Shirley LeClerc

Speak Your Mind