Dealing with Difficult Subjects in Primary Sources

During a recent discussion on writing for blogs at the Library of Congress, one of the topics discussed was the importance of avoiding controversial topics. I found myself remembering presentations I made about the Library’s digital collections early in my career at the Library. I would say that these online primary sources included material that would shock, anger, disgust, stun, frustrate or annoy nearly everyone in the room. Showing the 1562 Map of America by Diego Gutiérrez, I would focus in on a section of South America where there are graphic depictions of cannibalism and note that some children would be fascinated but some would be horrified and that teachers should be aware of the possible negative reactions.

The 1562 Map of America by Diego Gutiérrez

After this social media discussion, I expressed my concern about avoiding difficult topics and noted that it was very important for teachers to be aware of some of the issues involved in using primary sources–especially those involving difficult topics. One thing that makes teaching with primary sources deeply engaging is that they document what was happening at the time being studied. However, this is also why they can be problematic. These sources depict beliefs and perspectives of previous eras, sometimes including negative stereotypes of women, minorities and ethnic groups, for example, or insulting and offensive language that was once commonplace.

What should teachers do when they want to use potentially difficult primary sources in classroom activities? First and most important, teachers should review any content to identify items that might be considered objectionable. If the objectionable nature of those items would derail the lesson from its intended purpose, teachers might want to consider replacing them. However, engaging with the difficult aspects of these historical primary sources might also enrich the students’ exploration of the topic at hand.

Remind students that primary sources reflect attitudes from the time when they were created, and that beliefs and values—as well as commonly-accepted ways of expressing them—may have changed. Here are some additional suggestions for helping students respond to troubling aspects of primary sources:

  • Help students learn more about the time period when the materials were created and think about why these stereotypes and beliefs existed at this time. Which values, stereotypes or negative images are used? Ask them to what extent these beliefs exist now.
  • Ask students why they think these primary sources were created.
  • Have students express their responses to these the items. Have them also think about how people living at the time these items were created felt. Were they angry? Frustrated? Did they accept these depictions as normal?
  • Have students create materials that avoid the stereotypes depicted but still meet the needs of those who commissioned these items. How would they encourage audiences at the time to use the item they created instead of the one expressing the stereotypical point of view?

How have you addressed difficult topics presented by primary sources in your classroom?

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