Primary Source Literacy at USC Libraries & Beyond

The Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy & Learning Outcomes

For those interested to learn more about Primary Source Literacy, we highly recommend consulting the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy, developed by the Rare Books and Manuscript Section (RBMS) and the Society of American Archivists (SAA).

The following learning outcomes are provided by the Guidelines for Primary Source Literacy. It is important to mention, that one class session or activity does not need to meet all of the learning outcomes. Instructors can chose from the list and apply the learning outcomes as needed. Librarians at the USC Libraries will be glad to help appropriate learning outcomes.

Learning Outcomes:

1. Conceptualize 

A. Distinguish primary from secondary sources for a given research question. Demonstrate an understanding of the interrelatedness of primary and secondary sources for research. 

B. Articulate what might serve as primary sources for a specific research project within the framework of an academic discipline or area of study. 

C. Draw on primary sources to generate and refine research questions. 

D. Understand that research is an iterative process and that as primary sources are found and analyzed the research question(s) may change. 


2. Find and Access 

A. Identify the possible locations of primary sources. 

B. Use appropriate, efficient, and effective search strategies in order to locate primary sources. Be familiar with the most common ways primary sources are described, such as catalog records and archival finding aids. 

C. Distinguish between catalogs, databases, and other online resources that contain information about sources, versus those that contain digital versions, originals, or copies of the sources themselves. 

D. Understand that historical records may never have existed, may not have survived, or may not be collected and/or publicly accessible. Existing records may have been shaped by the selectivity and mediation of individuals such as collectors, archivists, librarians, donors, and/or publishers, potentially limiting the sources available for research. 

E. Recognize and understand the policies and procedures that affect access to primary sources, and that these differ across repositories, databases, and collections. 


3. Read, Understand, and Summarize 

A. Examine a primary source, which may require the ability to read a particular script, font, or language, to understand or operate a particular technology, or to comprehend vocabulary, syntax, and communication norms of the time period and location where the source was created. 

B. Identify and communicate information found in primary sources, including summarizing the content of the source and identifying and reporting key components such as how it was created, by whom, when, and what it is. C. Understand that a primary source may exist in a variety of iterations, including excerpts, transcriptions, and translations, due to publication, copying, and other transformations. 


4. Interpret, Analyze, and Evaluate 

A. Assess the appropriateness of a primary source for meeting the goals of a specific research or creative project. 

B. Critically evaluate the perspective of the creator(s) of a primary source, including tone, subjectivity, and biases, and consider how these relate to the original purpose(s) and audience(s) of the source. 

C. Situate a primary source in context by applying knowledge about the time and culture in which it was created; the author or creator; its format, genre, publication history; or related materials in a collection. 

D. As part of the analysis of available resources, identify, interrogate, and consider the reasons for silences, gaps, contradictions, or evidence of power relationships in the documentary record 6 and how they impact the research process.

E. Factor physical and material elements into the interpretation of primary sources including the relationship between container (binding, media, or overall physical attributes) and informational content, and the relationship of original sources to physical or digital copies of those sources. 

F. Demonstrate historical empathy, curiosity about the past, and appreciation for historical sources and historical actors. 


5. Use and Incorporate 

A. Examine and synthesize a variety of sources in order to construct, support, or dispute a research argument. 

B. Use primary sources in a manner that respects privacy rights and cultural contexts. 

C. Cite primary sources in accordance with appropriate citation style guidelines or according to repository practice and preferences (when possible). 

D. Adhere to copyright and privacy laws when incorporating primary source information in a research or creative project.

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