"History begins with people caught in the moment-by-moment rush of events"(4). The reports that eyewitnesses make or the objects they create not only reflect a view of history but also offer a way to make history come alive. Using primary sources exposes students to multiple perspectives on the great issues of past and present. As students interact with primary sources, they develop knowledge, skills, and analytical abilities.
The current and growing interest in using primary sources is the result of two major realities in education. The first is that contemporary learning theory has moved away from the concept of student as a passive receptacle of knowledge to one where the student is expected to be an active learner in an inquiry-based environment. The teacher is not longer a "sage on the stage" but a "guide on the side." At the highest level, the student is expected to develop a question from which a problem can be solved or a decision made, conduct research, and develop and present results to an audience that goes far beyond the teacher and fellow students. Such an approach takes students beyond factual recall and into critical thinking skills of analysis, evaluation, and synthesis.
The second reality that educators must face is that, as a result of the information explosion, students now have quick and easy access to huge amounts of information. "Students now routinely encounter information in formats as simple as the picture book, as complex as the multimedia package, and as diverse as the literary classic and the personal homepage. The information explosion has provided countless opportunities for students and has dramatically altered the knowledge and abilities they will need to live productive lives in the twenty-first century"(5). As a result, students need to learn new skills of evaluating and interpreting information.
National standards reflect inquiry-based learning and information literacy. The National History Standards state that "real historical understanding requires students to engage in historical thinking: to raise questions and to marshal evidence to support their answers; to go beyond the facts represented in their textbook and examine the historical record themselves; to consult documents, journals, diaries, artifacts, historic sites and other evidence from the past, and to do so imaginatively -- taking into account the historical context in which these records were created and comparing the multiple points of view of those on the scene at the time" (6).
Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning by the American Association of School Librarians states three information literacy standards for student learning.
"Standard 1: The student who is information literate accesses information efficiently and effectively.
Standard 2: The student who is information literate evaluates information critically and competently.
Standard 3: The student who is information literate uses information accuratelyand creatively" (7).
National History Standard #4B discusses historical research capabilities and states that "students should be able to obtain historical data from a variety of sources, including: library and museum collections, historic sites, historical photos, journals, diaries, eyewitness accounts, newspapers, and the like; documentary films; and so on."