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Jen Hoyer
September 19, 2018

Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom. Using primary sources in the classroom shows us that we can access history through many different formats as long as we are grounded in historical thinking.

Whether we’re using primary or sources in the classroom, an important part of our research is always to cite our sources. Many students may be familiar with this task, but most will feel daunted when asked to cite a primary source. We’ve found a few easy tricks for teaching this skill through a Citation Search.

Getting Ready

sample sources for citing

It’s helpful to think about what types of primary sources you want your students to learn how to cite, and to prepare a few examples. Have they been working with maps, letterhead, and photographs? See if you can find a few of these to have on hand for this activity. We sometimes prepare copies of these in a graphic organizer so that each student can have their own to work through; you’ll find this graphic organizer included in our Citing Sources lesson plan.

Getting Started

The big important question here is: why do we cite our sources? Ask students for their thoughts, and discuss the suggestions they give. Some reasons you might want to include in your discussion are:

  • To give credit where credit is due
  • Because it is expected in scholarly work
  • To help others follow the path of your research 
  • To avoid plagiarism

After a group conversation about this, pose the next question: HOW do we cite sources?

At this point, we like to introduce students to the MLA citation format, which we explain is a formula for citing sources that has been created by an academic organization. MLA has specified a list of core elements, which are pieces of information related to any source. Show this list of core elements to the students:

  1. Author
  2. Title of source
  3. Title of container
  4. Other contributors
  5. Version
  6. Number
  7. Publisher
  8. Publication date
  9. Location

It’s helpful to talk with students about what all of these core elements are. Ask students: what does it mean to be an Author? What is the job of a publisher? And, what might an “Other contributor” be? Students may suggest illustrators, photographers, editors, and more.

Now it’s time for our citation search! Let’s look for as many of these core elements as we can find on each of our primary sources. We might not find all of them – or even very many of them – on every source. The key thing is that we still need to look hard for every element. You may want to demonstrate, perhaps with a book, the various places we might look for these elements: on the cover, on the spine, on the inside cover page, and on the back of the inside cover page.

We like to use a graphic organizer that provides space for students to write each of these core elements that they find for each source. You’ll find one of those in our lesson plan.

The final step for citing our sources is taking all of these elements and putting them in the right format. The format of a citation helps people understand what each of the elements is – for example, we always start with the author’s name, and that way other people will know who the author was.

The format of a citation will be different for different primary sources. We like to share a guide for formatting citations; you’ll find one on the last page of our lesson plan, and you can also find many online. It’s important to explain to a student that if we couldn’t find an element, we can skip that part of the format.

Have you tried something similar to this with your students? What works well for you?

This post is the eighth in an ongoing series. Read the other posts in the series: What's a Primary Source?, Observations and InferencesMaps and AtlasesUsing the Internet to Find Primary Sources Online, Asking Questions for Research, Notetaking Skills, and How can we do research with political cartoons?

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