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Teaching with Special Collections

Primary Source Match Game

Author:  Michael Taylor, Curator of Books, LSU Libraries


Though students occasionally have trouble understanding the difference between a primary and secondary source, a bigger challenge is figuring out how and where to find primary sources relevant to their research. Library catalogs and archival finding aids, because of their inherent limitations, can be frustrating, especially to novice researchers. Part of the solution is helping students to understand how materials can be used in multiple ways, thereby seeing for themselves why catalog records and finding aids are limited in the amount of description they can provide.

The goal of this exercise is to:

  • Encourage students to see materials at more than face value.
  • Demonstrate that individual primary sources can be used for many different purposes.
  • Give examples of how information about a particular topic might be found in unexpected places.
  • Teach students to be more resourceful and flexible—sometimes it pays to use what’s at hand and adapt your research topic accordingly rather than struggling to find the "perfect" source.
  • Show the limitations of library catalogs and the need to think creatively about how to find information.  


Undergraduate- or graduate-level research methods courses.  General information literacy / library instruction workshops.



Locate a few examples of all the major kinds of primary sources. This exercise can be easily adapted to any course topic, but does not need to be. (See our blog story "A Taste of History" for an example of how this exercise was adapted to a food history class.) Materials from the Louisiana & Lower Mississippi Valley Collection that work well for a general-purpose introduction to primary source research include:


Class Time Needed: 30 minutes 

Part 1

Spread the materials out on tables. Ask your students to spend a few minutes forming initial impressions of what they think the materials are and how they could be used. Then give some hypothetical research topics and ask the students to identify the primary source they think is best suited to each topic. Try to select topics that are deliberately tricky and open-ended, keeping in mind that the goal of the activity is to show students that primary sources can be used in many different ways. Some sources should be obvious, others less obvious.  Suggestions to start the discussion:

Topic:  The African-American experience.  Potential sources:

  • Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory. Find descriptions of steamboat explosions that list the victims. Note that the names of black victims were usually not given. In one case, the name of a passenger’s horse was given, but not those of his slaves. Commentary on the inhumanity of slavery.
  • Insurance Maps of Alexandria. How can a map be used to study race? Note the designation of black churches, cemeteries, sports arenas, and colored waiting rooms at the train depot.
  • New Orleans City Directory. Locate the section on slave dealers (on same page as soap manufacturers and stables) and advertisements for things like plantation clothing.  
  • New Orleans Medical and Surgical Journal. Find the article on "The Instincts of Races," by Josiah Nott, a controversial nineteenth-century proponent of scientific racism.
  • Fred Shaw's Dime American Comic Songster. Locate the song "I'm off for Nicaragua!", about William Walker, an American filibuster who attempted to establish an independent, slaveholding empire in Central America.
  • Image of nineteenth-century bicyclists. Why was cycling a predominantly white pastime?

Topic:  History of transportation and communication. Potential sources:

  • Lloyd’s Steamboat Directory.
  • Image of nineteenth-century bicyclists.
  • Fred Shaw’s Dime American Comic Songster. Contains a song titled "The Atlantic Cable."
  • New Orleans City Directory. Locate the "Levee Guide" and advertisements for marine insurance and salvage.
  • Insurance Maps of Alexandria. Note the segregated waiting rooms at the train depot.
  • New Orleans Monthly Review (July 1874). Contains article on "The Electric Telegraph" by Samuel F.B. Morse.
  • William R. Bell Papers. Papers of a Civil War undertaker. Can be used to study how advancements and limitations of travel affected the burial and memorialization of the dead.

Topic:  History of health and safety.  Potential sources:

  • Lloyd's Steamboat Directory and Disasters on the Western Waters. Accounts of steamboat explosions.
  • William R. Bell Papers. Papers of a Civil War undertaker. Source for study of funerary practices.
  • LSU ephemera: See ads for cigarettes in old football programs.
  • Image of nineteenth-century bicyclists. What was the debate over cycling, health, and safety?
  • New Orleans City Directory. What businesses or institutions were concerned with health and safety?

Topic:  Sex and gender studies.  Potential sources:

  • LSU ephemera: What was LSU like in the early days of co-education? How were women depicted in university publications from this time period?
  • Image of nineteenth-century bicyclists: What was the debate over women and cycling in the 1800s?
  • Insurance Maps of Alexandria. What businesses were owned by women?
  • New Orleans City Directory. Locate businesses owned by women.

Part 2

In the library catalog, have the students locate the records or finding aids for a few of the sources above. Ask them whether the topics they matched with a source are mentioned in the record or finding aid for that source. Open the floor to discussion about the challenges of research and how historians locate primary source material.


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