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Home >> Teaching Tips >> Primary & Secondary Sources: What Are They? >> Censorship: We Can't Rewrite the Past

Censorship: We Can't Rewrite the Past

Why Do Primary Sources Matter?
We use primary sources to know and understand what life was like in a different time. We learn from them not just what people did and said, but also what they thought and believed. Some of their ideas may seem silly to us; others may seem offensive and even hurtful.

This is especially true of attitudes which cause harm in our own communities, such as the belief that some people are naturally better than others. It is important, however, that primary sources not be changed by taking out parts we find upsetting. If we do that, they will not be a guide to what the past was like, but to what we wish it could have been.
What is Right About Wrong Ideas?
In reading ideas we don’t like, we can try to understand why people of a different time might have thought this way. It also helps us recognize behaviour that we do not wish to repeat. Can you think of ideas we have today that people two centuries from now might consider wrong?

For example, you might come across records which give the impression that some fur traders thought that Aboriginal people were lazy*. This is not because they were – in fact, there are plenty of other records that show how hard aboriginal people worked. And it may not have been because the fur traders were mean and unkind men.

British and Aboriginal cultures viewed work and time differently. Aboriginals worked when work was there to be done. They saw no value in working just for the sake of working. To the British, in contrast, time was something to be used, not wasted. They valued keeping busy. They looked at Aboriginal people and saw what was different as being wrong.

Which culture resembles your life? Do you like keeping busy? Or do you prefer to work hard and then sit back and just enjoy some down time? Look at your own family—what values about time and work do they show in daily life? Do you ever look at other people and judge their differences as being wrong?
Primary sources offer an excellent opportunity to teach about critical reading of documents. Before approaching the materials with your students, be sure to reinforce the “Five Ws and an H” when students are using the documents:
  • WHO created the document? (was it a person? a business?)
  • WHAT is it? (is it a diary? a letter? a photograph?)
  • WHEN was it created? (is it dated? are there other ways of determining what time period it is from?)
  • WHERE was it created? (are there any clues to tell you where?)
  • WHY was it created? (is it a record of a transaction? a personal memoir?)
  • HOW might this be interpreted differently today?

Primary sources can help to bring history to life through the exciting and personal stories they tell. They can be an excellent teaching tool when approached with the proper resources for reading and interpreting them.

* Carpenter, Cecelia Svinth. Fort Nisqually: A Documented History of Indian and British Interaction.
Tahoma Research Service, 1986, p. 43.
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