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Author: Wilson J. Warren
Title: Using the World Wide Web for Primary Source Research in High School History Classes
Publication info: Ann Arbor, MI: MPublishing, University of Michigan Library
August 1999

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Source: Using the World Wide Web for Primary Source Research in High School History Classes
Wilson J. Warren

vol. 2, no. 2, August 1999
Article Type: Article
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Using the World Wide Web for Primary Source Research in High School History Classes

Wilson J. Warren

Assistant Professor of History Coordinator
Social Science Education Program
Indiana State University
Terre Haute, IN 47809

Many high school history teachers neglect the use of primary sources in their classrooms, often because of lack of access to suitable materials. As a result, high school history instruction tends to lack a critical research focus, making it both inauthentic and dull. After explaining the rationale for using primary source materials with high school students, this article describes the author's experiences in teaching undergraduate social studies education majors how to use the World Wide Web as a pedagogical and research tool for primary source materials. As part of the content methods course that undergraduates pursuing certification in social studies teaching must take at Indiana State University, future high school history teachers are introduced to two types of web sites: "prepackaged" sites that provide structured primary source lessons and sites that allow teachers to construct their own primary source exercises. By engaging in primary source research activities, high school students can develop their critical thinking skills and become more motivated to learn history.

.01. INTRODUCTION: History Instruction Without Primary Sources

One of the most common complaints among historians and educators about high school history instruction is that it lacks a critical research focus. Many high school history teachers rely primarily on the textbook. In my content methods course that is required for undergraduates pursuing their certification in social studies education, I often ask my junior or senior year students to reflect on the science classes they took in comparison to the history classes they took in high school. Students can recall dissecting frogs, mixing chemicals, and testing hypotheses in their biology and chemistry classes. But most of my students, with exception of the very few who took AP history, cannot remember looking at documents in their history classes. In fact, based on what most of my students did in their high school history classes, many have little idea about what primary sources are let alone how to pose historical questions.  [1]

This lack of a critical research focus also contributes substantially to another common complaint about high school history instruction: its dullness. As James W. Loewen says in the opening sentence of his widely-acclaimed Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong, "[h]igh school students hate history."  [2] Students typically think of history as not only the most boring but also the most irrelevant subject they take in school. This perception is again directly related to the pedagogical emphasis of many high school history instructors: textbook reading combined with rehearsal and regurgitation of factual material. Students are not exposed to the interpretive dimensions of the discipline when this type of pedagogy dominates. They also miss out on the potential for interest created by examining the "mysteries" posed by actual historical documents.

Of course, until very recently nearly all high school history teachers could have honestly protested about limited access to primary sources. Most high school libraries typically contain next to nothing that might be useful for this purpose. Providing students with primary source materials would have entailed photocopying items from a nearby research library or would have involved considerable logistical creativity and use of class time in transporting students to larger public libraries, local history museums, or county courthouses. But with the explosion of materials available on the World Wide Web, and increasingly widespread Internet access in schools, teachers can less legitimately complain about lack of availability of primary source materials.  [3]

.02. The Rationale for Using Primary Sources

As historians, we tend to feel that the advantages of primary source research need no explanation, but it is useful to identify the benefits for high school students. Without attempting to exhaustively list these benefits, several issues come to mind. Students need to develop the critical thinking perspectives, or "habits of mind," used by historians that can only be acquired through the systematic analysis of historical materials. As David Kobrin has outlined in his valuable book, Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources, students involved in historical research can learn how "to pose pertinent questions, define problems, analyze relevant information, support their conclusions, and understand their own values." While developing these skills and a more critical perspective, primary research exercises also help students to learn to question authority, particularly the reliance created by the repetitious use of textbooks and direct instruction by teachers. By helping students to pursue primary source analysis and their own construction of history, teachers can also motivate students to become more active and less passive in their learning. In the process of engaging in primary source research, many high school students actually become enthusiastic about history rather than bored by it.  [4]

Still, convincing a non-AP high school history teacher to adopt a more inquiry-based approach to the subject can be a challenge. In this respect, my junior and senior social studies methods students are usually as skeptical as the typical veteran high school teacher. Their skepticism often stems from questions about the nature of adolescents' intellectual development (that is, can most kids really adopt historians' "habits of mind"?) and the ability of adolescents to engage in serious historical inquiry. These are valid concerns. Researchers have found that the typical adolescent believes he or she can understand history without using a process of inquiry and that authorities should not be questioned. After all, many high school students are only starting to develop formal operational thinking skills, and are immersed in Kohlberg's conventional stage of moral development.  [5]

Instead of simply accepting students' natural limitations, high school teachers need to direct students' intellectual development. Studies suggest that students can follow teachers who model good historical practices. Ronald Evans, for instance, has argued that teachers who have clear conceptions of the nature of the discipline can not only make appropriate curriculum decisions but can also successfully shape their students' understanding of history. Others have found that high school students need active, "hands-on" instructional activities in order to develop their abilities to think more abstractly and ideologically across the entire spectrum of social sciences.  [6]

The most effective (and attention-grabbing) way of engaging high school students in hands-on primary source exercises is by provoking interest, particularly in the affective learning domain. That is, adolescents will be most interested in exercises that challenge their values and beliefs. Kieran Egan has noted that teachers who use historical materials that involve "abstract binary opposites" create dramatic tension that is compelling to students. Egan argues that this can be done without reducing historical issues to simplistic black and white explanations. Interesting details that emerge from strange, awe-inspiring, or unexpected historical episodes are the most effective fodder for historical inquiry activities.  [7]

Another typical concern of my methods students as well as high school history teachers is the time required for such investigatory exercises. While it is obviously true that having students engage in primary source examinations takes time away from other activities, the time required does not need to be excessive. Indeed, brief exercises, requiring two or three 50 minutes periods, are probably much more effective for secondary students than longer exercises. As described below, the types of primary source exercises I model for my methods students are designed to take no more than a couple of days of instructional time.

.03. "Prepackaged" Primary Source Web Sites

Convinced of the importance of such activities for high school students, I have my social studies methods students examine the World Wide Web for the purpose of finding sites that could be used for high school-level primary source research exercises. I usually start my instruction on this topic by modeling two types of web site use. One is the "prepackaged" primary source exercises that one can adopt for classroom use without much alteration or explanation. The other encourages my future teachers to consider sites that might lend themselves to the construction of their own historical inquiry exercises. (The sources include a list of both types of primary source web sites that could be useful for high school history classes.)  [8]

Some of the best prepackaged exercises can be found on the National Archives' teaching materials site.  [9] Currently, the site contains nearly twenty sets of documents on topics ranging from the Constitution, the Amistad case, black soldiers in the Civil War, the development of barbed wire, woman's suffrage, the Zimmermann telegram, poster art of World War II, Jackie Robinson, and Watergate. Each document site contains reproducible copies of primary documents from the National Archives' holdings. The introductory material for each is also linked to the National History Standards and National Standards for Civics and Government. Other related curricular connections are suggested as well. The main National Archives' teaching web site also has reproducible document worksheets that can be adapted for use with any other type of primary source document a teacher might want to use.  [10]

The site on the development of barbed wire lends itself nicely to an integrated thematic approach to industrialization and frontier settlement in the late 19th century. I have also had my methods students consider this site because I feel high school students are likely to be curious about how barbed wire, a material the typical adolescent will consider mundane, is worthy of serious historical investigation. In this sense, high school students might be drawn in out of a sense of intrigue. Just how might the development of barbed wire link the frontier's development to industrialization? In having my methods students examine the site, I asked them to consider how they might have a class of 11th grade U.S. history students use the site after finishing units on the westward movement and the growth of urban-industrial America. Although complete in virtually all other respects, the National Archives' sites typically do not provide teachers with suggestions about context. I suggest to my students that they examine the site with this research question in mind: How did the introduction of barbed wire shape the settlement of the West and necessitate an urban-industrial society?

The following procedural steps are all provided in the site's teaching activities section. Following a nicely focused yet concise historical background reading, the site provides links to a precise reproduction of Joseph Glidden's 1874 patent application and the accompanying drawing of the barbed wire itself. If computers with web access are available for the entire class, students working in pairs (as suggested in the teaching activities) could then examine the documents and answer the document analysis questions provided in the site. The teacher should replicate these questions on a study guide for each student. Or, as the site's instructions also suggest, the instructor might make transparencies of both artifacts and project them through an overhead for the entire class.

For document analysis, the site suggests three related steps. The first is free association and brainstorming around the idea of the various impacts one thinks of that are tied to barbed wire. After that step, students examine the drawing and text of the patent application to answer the following questions: For whom was the drawing intended? Why was it created? What is the inventor actually seeking to patent? What are the strengths of the invention? How well does the written description depict the physical design and intended use? What aspects of the description need enhancement? Finally, after these questions have been answered, students are asked to ponder more complex historical connections necessitating reflection upon previously learned material: What skills were necessary for the inventor to design these improvements? What skills were required to manufacture, market and sell the product? What are some connections to professions and technical skills of the era?

Although an instructor might reasonably choose to end the activity at this point, the site provides several ideas for related activities (though pursuing any of them would add to the amount of instructional time needed). In "Writing and Defining a Position," instructors are asked to divide students into four groups and then write about how the development of barbed wire affected various groups (cowboys or herders, farmers, Native Americans, and wire manufacturers). In "Comparing Written and Visual Descriptions," students are asked to write a description of the improvement of an object they commonly use in class (like a pencil sharpener). Once students have also redesigned this object and compared it to their description, they could then discuss why the patent office requires both visual and written descriptions of inventions. In "Relating Personal Experiences," students could discuss their personal "encounters" with barbed wire and speculate about why people today are interested enough in the material to collect it. "Creative Interpretations" suggests that students listen to Cole Porter's "Don't Fence Me In" and read the lyrics. They would then translate the images suggested by the song to some other written medium. The "Further Research Activity" offers the possibility of structuring a similar exercise around another invention that shaped the West, such as the plow or firearms.

Once the instructor has had students complete the document analysis and discuss their findings, I feel it is crucial to once again return to the original historical question: How did the introduction of barbed wire shape the settlement of the West and necessitate an urban-industrial society? Students should be asked to write a coherent essay response to this question that draws upon their document analysis. A culminating discussion based on their responses may also prove worthwhile.

.04. Constructing Your Own Web-Based Primary Source Exercises

Although the number of web sites offering "prepackaged" exercises using primary documents seems to be steadily increasing, high school history instructors interested in constructing their own exercises also certainly have a wide array of sites to choose from. Because I stress the use of quantitative information with my methods students, partly since I have used it frequently in my own research and partly because high school students need more opportunities to manipulate numerical data outside math classes, I have found that the United States Historical Census Data Browser lends itself nicely to quantitative research exercises. Created by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the site provides access to state and county level data for each of the censuses from 1790 to 1960.  [11]

Although not as complete as the published census, the "virtual" census still provides a wealth of data, and is certainly more user-friendly, especially for youngsters, than the bound census volumes. Instead of manipulating and poring over heavy, dusty, and intimidating tomes, high school students can learn very quickly how to click on various categories to compile the data they need. While many students will initially be intimidated by an exercise focusing on the use of numbers, the potential attraction is not unlike that raised by the National Archives' teaching unit on the introduction of barbed wire. Many high school students are likely to be mystified by how numbers might convey important historical insights. It is then incumbent upon the creative and adventuresome high school history teacher to "sell" the use of census data to clear up this mystery.

For my methods students, I introduce them to the virtual census by asking them to envision teaching a unit for an 11th grade U.S. history class on Gilded Age industrialization. After having introduced their students to this era for the nation as a whole, it would be wise for them to have their students try to understand how industrialization impacted their own area. Given Indiana State University's location in Vigo County, Indiana, I asked them to examine this issue for our county. To understand Vigo County's economic development during the late nineteenth century, it is also important for students to examine change over time. Thus the research question I pose to them: How did Vigo County change as a result of industrialization from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century? (This question is particularly relevant since Vigo County has a long industrial heritage.)

To begin, I provide each of my methods students with a blank chart. They, like the high school students they would someday teach, would then use the virtual census site to look up county-level data on a variety of variables for the years 1870, 1930, and 1950, including total population, total number of foreign born, total number of whites, total number of blacks, total number of manufacturing plants, and total number who worked in manufacturing. As would be true in using the published census volumes for these years, the census categories that examine these various issues change somewhat over time, particularly those involving manufacturing employment. I ask my methods students to think about how to combine categories to come up with the most meaningful and consistent answers over time. For instance, while the 1870 and 1930 census categories provide straightforward calculations for the number of people who worked in manufacturing, the 1950 census provides a much more detailed (and convoluted) breakdown by occupation. Particularly at the high school level, students would need to think about the types of jobs involved in manufacturing before realizing that male and female craftspeople and operatives were the four most relevant census categories for that year. For high school students, teachers would certainly need to prompt and direct discussion about such interpretive issues.

After gathering the raw data on the chart, the next step involves converting, where relevant, the absolute numbers to relative numbers (percentages) for the purpose of comparing the data over time. This type of statistical calculation would draw upon skills already learned by high school students. Still, at the high school level, history teachers would need to spend some time with students explaining why percentages are the most useful way of comparing, say, the contribution of foreign born to the total population or changes in the contribution of manufacturing workers to total employment in Vigo County over time. In terms of the manufacturing category, students might also be directed to consider calculating the proportion of numbers per manufacturing plant for each year.

Once the percentages are added to the chart, students could then tackle the research question: How did Vigo County change from the late 19th century through the mid-20th century? I encourage my methods students to start by forming a list of visible trends before composing a more structured essay response. To be sure, a high school teacher would also need to note that these categories are not the only relevant measures of change over time. But even among my methods students, there is a wide discrepancy between those who analyze the information carefully and systematically and those who simply draw a few rather obvious conclusions. For instance, while the county's total population increases in each year, some point out that the rate of change slowed considerably over time. Others note that the total number of manufacturing plants declined drastically over time while the total and relative number of manufacturing workers increased steadily (which was most evident in their calculations of the proportion of workers per plant). Because my methods students already have considerable U.S. history background, they are able to explain this change by references to the trend toward industrial consolidation. At the high school level, given students much more limited historical backgrounds, a teacher might urge them to speculate why this trend is evident. In this way, the exercise would help students learn to construct meaningful historical hypotheses that could be "tested" as they learned more history.

Whether high school history teachers use prepackaged primary source exercises or construct their own, the World Wide Web should prove to be invaluable for injecting needed authenticity into high school history classrooms. After some experimentation and careful attention to structuring the assignments, high school history teachers should realize that many web sites are quite accessible to their students. In turn, students, most of whom tend to be fascinated by web sites already, will be drawn into historical inquiry exercises in a way that may transfer to greater enthusiasm for the discipline in general.


Abel, Trudi Johanna. "Students as Historians: Lessons from an 'Interactive' Census Database Project." Perspectives 35(1997): 10-14.

Davis, O.L., Jr., and Elizabeth Yeager. "Classroom Teachers' Thinking about Historical Texts: An Exploratory Study." Theory and Research in Social Education 24(1996): 146-66.

Egan, Kieran. "Layers of Historical Understanding." Theory and Research in Social Education 17(1989): 280-94.

Evans, Ronald W. "Lessons from History: Teacher and Student Conceptions of the Meaning of History." Theory and Research in Social Education 16(1988): 203-25.

Gabella, Marcy Singer. "Beyond the Looking Glass: Bringing Students into the Conversation of Historical Inquiry." Theory and Research in Social Education 22(1994): 340-63.

Hughes, Andrew S. "Toward a More Thoughtful Professional Education for Social Studies Teachers: Can Problem-Based Learning Contribute?" Theory and Research in Social Education 25(1997): 431-45.

Hynd, Cynthia R. "Teaching Students to Think Critically Using Multiple Texts in History." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 42(1999): 428-36.

Kobrin, David. Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1996.

Levstik, Linda S., and Christine C. Pappas. "Exploring the Development of Historical Understanding." Journal of Research and Development in Education 21(1987): 1-15.

Loewen, James W. Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. New York: The New Press, 1995.

McMichael, Andrew. "The Historian, the Internet, and the Web: A Reassessment." Perspectives 36(1998): 29-32.

Noonan, Kathleen M. "Untangling the Web: The Use of the World Wide Web as a Pedagogical Tool in History Courses." The History Teacher 31(1998): 205-19.

Percoco, James A. A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann, 1998.

Potter, Lee Ann. "National Archives Expands Digital Classroom." Perspectives 37(1999): 3-4.

Seixas, Peter. "Students' Understanding of Historical Significance." Theory and Research in Social Education 22(1994): 281-304.

Shaver, James P., ed. Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning: A Project of the National Council for the Social Studies. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1991.

Shiveley, James M., and Philip J. Van Fossen. "Critical Thinking and the Internet: Opportunities for the Social Studies Classroom." The Social Studies 90(1999): 42-6.


Primary Source Web Sites

  1. Internet Archives of Texts and Documents:
  2. University of Oklahoma Law Center History Documents :
  3. University of Kansas WWW Virtual Library:
  4. Library of Congress:
  5. National Archives' Primary Sources and Activities:
  6. American Memory Project:
  7. The History Place:
  8. United States Historical Census Data Browser:
  9. New Deal Network:
  10. Truman Library Project Whistlestop:
  11. The Great Chicago Fire and the Web of Memory:
  12. History of Elections:
  13. Internet Modern History Sourcebook:
  14. Japanese American Exhibit and Access Project:
  15. Cybrary of the Holocaust:
  16. The Labyrinth: Resources for Medieval Studies:


1. Larry Cuban, "History of Teaching in Social Studies," in Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning: A Project of the National Council for the Social Studies, ed. James P. Shaver (New York, 1991), 197-209. In my experience as a reader for the AP U.S. History exam, I have discovered that many high school AP history teachers do not teach their students how to analyze historical documents. Instead, because of the way the U.S. history essays are assessed for the AP test, students are taught to use documents as reference materials.

2. James W. Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong (New York, 1995), 1.

3. For a generally negative assessment of the Internet's value to historians, see Andrew McMichael, "The Historian, the Internet, and the Web: A Reassessment," Perspectives (American Historical Association Newsletter) 36(February 1998), 29-32. For a positive assessment of the World Wide Web including a rubric for evaluating the quality of web sites, see James M. Shiveley and Philip J. VanFossen, "Critical Thinking and the Internet: Opportunities for the Social Studies Classroom," The Social Studies 90 (January/February 1999), 42-6. The U.S. Department of Education's The Condition of Education 1998 reports that between the fall of 1994 and 1997, Internet access in public schools increased from 35 to 78 percent. More important, by the fall of 1997, 27 percent of instructional rooms had Internet access.

4. O.L. Davis, Jr., and Elizabeth Yeager, "Classroom Teachers' Thinking about Historical Texts: An Exploratory Study," Theory and Research in Social Education 24(1996), 146-66; David Kobrin, Beyond the Textbook: Teaching History Using Documents and Primary Sources (Portsmouth, NH, 1996); Marcy Singer Gabella, "Beyond the Looking Glass: Bringing Students into the Conversation of Historical Inquiry," Theory and Research in Social Education 22(1994), 340-63; and Cynthia R. Hynd, "Teaching Students to Think Critically Using Multiple Texts in History," Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 42(March 1999), 428-36. Also useful in providing suggestions for a more creative and "hands-on" ("applied") secondary history teaching focus is James A. Percoco, A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History (Portsmouth, NH, 1998).

5. Gabella, "Beyond the Looking Glass."

6. See, for instance, several of the essays in James P. Shaver, ed., Handbook of Research on Social Studies Teaching and Learning: A Project of the National Council for the Social Studies (New York, 1991), including especially James A. Mackey, "Adolescents' Social, Cognitive, and Moral Development and Secondary School Social Studies, " 134-43; Mark C. Schug and William B. Walstad, "Teaching and Learning Economics," 411-9; and Murry R. Nelson and Robert J. Stahl, "Teaching Anthropology, Sociology, and Psychology," 420-6. Also see Andrew S. Hughes, "Toward a More Thoughtful Professional Education for Social Studies Teachers: Can Problem-Based Learning Contribute?" Theory and Research in Social Education 25(1997), 431- 45.

7. Kieran Egan, "Layers of Historical Understanding," Theory and Research in Social Education 17(1989), 280-94.

8. Kathleen M. Noonan, "Untangeling the Web: The Use of the World Wide Web as a Pedagogical Tool in History Courses," The History Teacher 31(February 1998), 205-219. Noonan's essay targets the use of the web with college students. But her essay's three main emphases with the web (providing material normally not available, supplementing course themes, and developing critical skills for evaluating Internet sources) apply equally well to secondary level students.

9. Http://

10. Lee Ann Potter, "National Archives Expands Digital Classroom," Perspectives (American Historical Association Newsletter) 37(February 1999), 3-4, includes a concise yet thoughtful evaluation of the primary source activities found in the National Archives' web site.

11. For a detailed description of a census database project designed for the college U.S. history survey level, see Trudi Johanna Abel, "Students as Historians: Lessons from an 'Interactive' Census Database Project," Perspectives (American Historical Association Newsletter) 35(March 1997), 1, 10-14. The United States Census Data Browser site also allows for more complicated cross-tabulations for more sophisticated searches.