Grades Five to Twelve: Working with Primary Sources

Pre-Visit Activity: Glossary of Important Terms

Hillary House: Specifically called the Hillary House National Historic Site and Koffler Museum of Medicine, this is a house located at 15372 Yonge Street in Aurora, ON, which has now been turned into a special museum run by the Aurora Historical Society. It was originally built for Dr. Walter Geike and his family and was used both as a home and as a doctor’s office. Four different doctors – Dr. Geike, Dr. Frederick Strange, Dr. Robert William Hillary and Dr. Robert Michael Hillary and their families lived in the house. When the Hillary family lived there, they referred to the building as “The Manor.” Today, it is set up to look how it did when the Hillary family lived here (from 1876 onwards), but also has other exhibits throughout the year in special exhibit rooms.

Artifacts: Objects and items that have been made by people that are often displayed in museums.

Primary Source: An object or document that is original to the time period being studied. For example, a book from 1890 is a primary source for the time period. [Note: If a page is photocopied from this text, the written words are still considered a primary source as they were written at that time period.]

Secondary Source: An object or document that is not original to the time period being study. These types of sources provide an account, commentary or perspective from outside the original period of study. The person who created the secondary source does not usually have first-hand experience with the situation or time period.

References: A list of sources and citations of information used in research and when doing projects.

Citations: The specific mention of a source used to obtain information for research purposes, for use in a report, project, assignment, etc. There are various accepted styles to list sources, including the American Psychological Association (APA), Modern Language Association (MLA) and Chicago Style, among others.

Hypotheses: Often used in Science, but also applicable to the study of History: a proposed explanation or guess that you can make, but have yet to prove. It is something that is usually put forward in order to promote further research, discussion and study to find evidence to support it.

Archives: A place where objects and documents of historical significance are stored to keep them safe and preserved. There are various types of archives, such as academic (i.e. at colleges, universities), government (i.e. town/city, province, country) and business (i.e. companies have their own archival documents stored in their own archives).

Archivist: The person who maintains and preserves items in an Archive. They have a range of responsibilities, including (but not limited to): collecting, assessing, preserving and maintaining archival materials. If they work in a public Archive location, they can also assist clients and visitors with research and locating items.

Activities Overview

Activity #1: Primary vs Secondary Sources
Students will work on their concept of primary and secondary sources through this group activity. Using examples provided by the AHS educator, students will work individually and/or with partners to determine which can be considered “primary sources” and which can be considered “secondary sources.” For certain artifacts and objects, both primary and secondary qualifications are possible; for these, students are challenged to determine when they would be classified as each.

Activity #2: Group Primary Source Investigation
Through a guided practice with the AHS educator, students learn how to look a primary source for clues to its purpose, function and what it can tell us about its time period. A specially selected artifact from the Aurora Historical Society collection will be used as the example for this activity, where students study it for clues, infer from any information they are able to gather from these clues and determine what information they require for further study. Both the ability to use a primary source as a means for answers about a time period and to help create research inquiry questions are worked on during this activity.

Activity #3: Individual (small group) Primary Source Investigation
Following the example of the previous activity’s guided practice, students put their skills to the test on an artifact in small group study. Groups of four or five students work together on artifacts from the Aurora Historical Society collections to determine answers to questions such as: is this a primary source? What is its function and purpose? Who may have used this? And what can we learn about the time period from this artifact? Students also collaboratively choose possible research focuses and topics that can be further studied from their particular object and share their observations with the class. Note: This activity can be expanded during class time through a research assignment or project (see Suggested Post-Visit Activities).

Suggested Post-Visit Activities

(1) Take a class trip to Hillary House National Historic Site at 15372 Yonge Street (If you have not already) to see some more of the Aurora Historical Society’s collections. Many objects are set up in the house to look how it did when the Hillary family was living there at various time periods, including the Dispensary and Consultation Rooms used by the nineteenth-century Dr Hillarys as the doctor’s area; the Study dressed like the early 20th century; and the Drawing Room dressed like the mid-20th century (1950s).

(2) Encourage students to visit their local library or archives where they can work more with primary sources and find out more information. Also encourage them to look into other archives, such as: The City of Toronto Archives, Archives Ontario, Library and Archives Canada. Here, they can find out about various time periods and how people in other local communities were affected by what was happening during those times. These sources of information can also help with obtaining additional primary sources for research projects.

(3) Primary sources are used for more than just display purposes (such as: research for books, family genealogical projects, to inform historians further about a specific time period, etc.) and students can learn more about this by speaking with an actual archivist. Have students do a short assignment interviewing an archivist to get more information on how primary sources are preserved and the various ways they have seen them used by the public.

(4) Students can pick their favourite artifact that they saw during the program and do a mini-research assignment to find out more accurate details about it. Using the questions they formulated during the program, students can gauge how accurate their conclusions and hypotheses on the object were with actual research. Contact the AHS educator for any additional background that may be available on the item, for photographs of the item and places to start for further secondary research on similar items.