Keeping Up With… Primary Source Literacy

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by Ariana Varela.

Ariana Varela is information literacy instruction librarian at the University of Southern California Libraries, email:

Primary Source Literacy 

Primary source literacy is a foundational skill that allows students to critically analyze first-hand accounts from specific time periods and contexts. Primary sources can connect students to the historical periods they are studying, offering a human connection to the past. While primary source literacy is an essential skill for students to develop, it is difficult to define due to the multiple formats sources can take, variations in primary source types between disciplines, and the use of physical versus born-digital and digitized items. The Society of American Archivists and ACRL Rare Books and Manuscript Section define primary source literacy as “the combination of knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to effectively find, interpret, evaluate, and ethically use primary sources within specific disciplinary contexts, in order to create new knowledge or to revise existing understandings.” [1] They outline key “frames” instructors can use to develop primary source literacy learning outcomes which include:

  • Conceptualize
  • Find and Access
  • Understand and Summarize
  • Interpret, Analyze, and Evaluate
  • Use and Incorporate

These frames further outline tangible skills students are comfortable with when they are able to locate, evaluate, and incorporate primary sources. The Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy highlight the intersections between information literacy and primary source literacy. Both the Guidelines and the ACRL Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education, encourage students’ abilities to effectively locate relevant information, critically analyze sources, and understand bias and authority in information creation. Building students' skills in both literacies strengthens their abilities as researchers who can critically evaluate information, synthesize multiple sources, and challenge existing narratives.

Addressing Archival Silences and Biases

Archival silences are defined as “the unintentional or purposeful absence or distortion of documentation of enduring value, resulting in gaps and inabilities to represent the past accurately.” [2] Items have to be created (historically this meant folks with economic and racial power), deemed to have lasting historical value, and preserved by institutions with the means for managing access and care for collections. Furthermore, traditional special collections and archival institutions have excluded voices from individuals with marginalized identities, but many are working to redress these issues within their collections. Archival silences are inherent in any primary source repository and should be discussed with students when working toward primary source literacy. 

Critical primary source instruction addresses gaps and biases within collections and encourages students to analyze power dynamics in repositories and within sources themselves. These principles can be addressed in traditional instruction settings, through online engagement, and through other forms of outreach like exhibits. One way to engage students in critical primary source instruction is through the use of guided questions that analyze the materiality, context, and contents of primary sources. Some questions for individuals to consider as they are engaging with primary sources are:

  • What is the historical context of the item? Why was this item preserved? 
  • Whose perspective does it reflect? What biases might the creator have held about the topic at hand?
  • What perspectives are missing from the collection? Where can you go to find additional voices on this topic?
  • Is there harmful or outdated language reflected in the content of the source? How about in the item’s record? 

Engaging students in critical primary source instruction promotes deeper engagement with sources and adds nuance to the historical narrative. It also prepares them to engage with difficult histories and analyze them thoughtfully. When we demonstrate critical primary source literacy instruction, we encourage students to explore underrepresented and critical topics, which expands on the existing scholarly conversation about historical actors and promotes students as researchers in their own right.

Promoting Primary Source Literacy

Primary source literacy instruction can happen in many settings: traditional classrooms, online learning modules, physical and digital exhibits, and other outreach or engagement activities. You do not need access to items within special collections libraries or community archives to teach about primary sources. Digitized or born digital material can be used to locate and analyze primary sources or create digital exhibits.


Engaging students in primary source instruction requires collaboration with faculty or community partners. Thoughtful collaboration results in clear learning outcomes designed by both instructors and library professionals, and ensures the items selected for the session are relevant to course themes or student research topics. Librarians can develop engaging course-tailored instruction sessions using the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. The Teaching with Primary Sources Collective created a toolkit for teaching with the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. They also feature lesson plans and assessment tools

Here are some considerations as you are designing primary source literacy sessions:

  • What topics or themes are students engaging with in their class?
  • What are the individual research topics of each student?
  • Are there marginalized stories you can highlight during your instruction session?
  • What active engagement activities can you design for the instruction session?
  • What two or three main skills do you want students to get out of the session?

In addition to facilitating synchronous and in person instruction sessions, librarians can also develop online learning modules that introduce students to searching for, accessing, and handling primary sources. Online learning modules are a great complement to in-person instruction. Students can learn how to handle primary sources or locate digital resources relevant to their research topics in advance so that the in-person session is dedicated to higher order primary source literacy skills like critically engaging with sources to uncover biases and missing perspectives. This approach is referred to as a flipped classroom approach where students engage with material on their own ahead of an instruction session to dedicate in person time to active learning, where they can practice the skills discussed in the learning modules. 

Physical and Digital Exhibits

Physical and digital exhibits can be an extension of primary source literacy instruction. Exhibits contextualize primary sources, show related holdings within a collection, and engage individuals in how to locate items for further research. They also provide library professionals with the opportunity to highlight marginalized collections and ask leading questions. 

In addition to library professionals curating exhibits, an effective active-learning lesson plan is facilitating student-curated exhibits. Student-curated exhibits allow for student-directed learning where they practice tangible skills like searching databases for physical or digital items, researching the creation and context of items, pairing related items, and writing introductions and labels. You can use software to create digital exhibits or reserve space within your library or instruction classroom to host an exhibit or pop up. 

There are many additional outreach and engagement opportunities that innovatively cover primary source literacy skills. Some areas for further consideration are gamifying primary source instruction, the use of artificial intelligence in doctoring images and sources, and collaborating with community archives or partners. 


Primary source literacy complements information literacy in that it engages students with the concept of searching for relevant information, contextualizing sources, and understanding bias and authority. While primary source literacy is difficult to define due to the differences in primary source materials across disciplines, the Society of American Archivists and ACRL Rare Books and Manuscripts Section developed Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy that inform library professionals of common standards to work towards during instruction and outreach engagements. Critical primary source literacy calls on library professionals to address gaps and biases in archival collections. We can also encourage students to explore the histories of folks from marginalized backgrounds. Critical research advocates for a more nuanced understanding of challenging or underrepresented histories, which challenges dominant power structures and stereotypes. Primary source literacy instruction can happen in formal education settings like classrooms, but it can also take place through engaging activities like student-curated exhibits. There is a robust online community dedicated to sharing resources about teaching with primary sources. 


[1] SAA-ACRL/RBMS Joint Task Force on the Development of Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy.”

[2] Society of American Archivists. “Archival Silence.” Dictionary of Archives Terminology.

Additional Resources

Association of College and Research Libraries. “Framework for Information Literacy for Higher Education.”

Barton, Melissa, Christine Cheng, Ikumi Crocoll, Andi Gustavson, and Kellee E. Warren. “Ethically Teaching Primary Sources that Reflect Histories of Violence, Hate, and Oppression.”.

Benjes-Small, Candice and Katelyn Tucker. “Keeping Up With...Flipped Classrooms.” Association of College and Research Libraries.

California State University, Fullerton. “Omeka: Building Digital Exhibits with Omeka.”

Golia, Julie and Robin M. Katz. “Creating Meaningful Faculty-Staff Collaboration.”

Katz, Robin M. “Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy (the short version).”

Teaching with Primary Sources Collective. “Category: Assessment Tools.”

Teaching with Primary Sources Collective. “Category: Lesson Plans.”

Teaching with Primary Sources Collective. “Get Involved.”

Teaching with Primary Sources Collective. “Guidelines Toolkit.”