Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription

Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription

The rhythms of academic life make August an opportune time to reflect on past teaching and to plan new lessons. Teachers of history at all levels appreciate that primary sources can pique students’ curiosity and introduce them to historical methods. Whether through the Document-Based Questions featured in Advanced Placement exams or the document readers often assigned in college-level courses, thousands of history students will pore over primary sources this fall. Yet while DBQs and published readers certainly provide hearty intellectual sustenance, they necessarily arrive pre-packaged, offering boneless and skinless fare which obscures the messier details of how historians make sense of the past. There is, however, a simple way to widen the menu: incorporate raw primary sources and make transcription the first step in the process of interpretation.

Six years ago, I decided to supplement a class discussion by distributing copies of a raw primary source that illustrated the intense backlash against the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Browsing through my own research notes to find a suitable sample, I selected a letter written by Boston abolitionist Theodore Parker to New Hampshire senator John P. Hale in May 1854. The document, which is only a few sentences long and written in reasonably legible script, seemed appropriate for a 50-minute survey course, and I hoped it would provide a fresh alternative to the processed sources my students had been digesting all semester.

It did—and I’ve used the letter in every survey class I’ve taught since then. My students relish the challenges of interpreting nineteenth-century scrawl (and sometimes surprise themselves with their facility of comprehension), thinking about the author and recipient to make sense of the letter’s importance, and connecting the letter’s contents to the larger story of sectional conflict. The Parker-Hale letter presents a puzzle to solve (is that a “g” or a “j’? was it dated before or after the Kansas-Nebraska Act became law? who exactly was John P. Hale?) even as it puts a more individualized, humanized face on an amorphous “North.” It forces students to slow down, read carefully, and make educated guesses about specific words, using context to fill in gaps left by Parker’s sometimes unsteady hand and hasty phrasing. It presents them with a complete text, including the salutation and signature sometimes omitted from published documents, thus illuminating epistolary conventions and adding a bit of historical flavor. Most importantly, it makes reading an active rather than passive activity, a habit I hope students will carry with them long after graduation. By grappling with the letter, my students have learned something about the raw materials with which historians work.

Abraham Lincoln, Farewell Address given at Springfield, IL, February 11, 1861. Courtesy of the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Whether presented as digital image files or photocopies—or, for students lucky enough to access them, original copies—handwritten primary source documents offer unique access to the past. Reading Lincoln’s farewell address to his Springfield neighbors is always a moving experience, but the raw immediacy of the original document helps to humanize the author and his audience.

This simple classroom activity can be adapted in all sorts of ways. In my advanced Civil War and Reconstruction course, I’ve asked students to transcribe a longer letter, written just after the caning of Charles Sumner, and to write a paper analyzing what it reveals about the escalation of sectional strife. This reduces the time constraint and enables me to assign a meatier source, but also introduces the pressure of a grade into the task. Other teachers might incorporate a transcription and interpretation activity into a quiz or exam, although advance preparation would likely be necessary. Instructors seeking to make transcription a regular feature of their early U.S. history surveys could assign Mark M. Smith’s Writing the American Past, a unique document reader which includes copies of texts in their original, handwritten format, along with the interpretive apparatus typically found in such volumes.[1] And while I have primarily used documents drawn from my own archival research, many online databases—including the Abraham Lincoln Papers—include images of raw sources alongside transcriptions, making them available to students in online and traditional courses alike.

The challenge and the joy of teaching history comes in no small part from the effort to make the past seem as relevant and as tangible to students as it does to historians. For teachers of Civil War-era history, the bountiful archive of handwritten sources can offer a feast for novice and advanced students alike.


[1] Mark M. Smith, ed., Writing the American Past: US History to 1877 (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2009).

Michael E. Woods

Michael E. Woods is Associate Professor of History at University of Tennessee-Knoxville. He is the author of Bleeding Kansas: Slavery, Sectionalism, and Civil War on the Missouri-Kansas Border (Routledge, 2016) and Emotional and Sectional Conflict in the Antebellum United States (Cambridge, 2014), which received the 2015 James A. Rawley Award from the Southern Historical Association. His most recent book is entitled Arguing until Doomsday: Stephen Douglas, Jefferson Davis, and the Struggle for American Democracy (North Carolina, 2020).

One Reply to “Teaching with Raw Primary Sources: The Value of Transcription”

  1. Professor Wood’s use of Abraham Lincoln’s Farewell Address to Springfield, Illinois from the Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress not only provides an example of the immediacy of an original document, but also offers the opportunity to discuss the context of the document’s creation in a way that reading a transcription alone cannot always do. If students examine other documents handwritten by Abraham Lincoln, they may notice that for the first line or two of the Farewell Address, the handwriting looks familiar. But then it changes. Why? Because Lincoln was on the train, which started moving. Lincoln’s normally legible handwriting becomes more difficult to read as the motion of the train increases. The editors of The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln speculate that the final portion was written by Lincoln secretary John G. Nicolay, who typically had beautiful penmanship. Any of us who have ever tried to handwriting something on a moving train can sympathize with Lincoln and Nicolay in this endeavor. But the document invites students to discuss why the address was important enough to Lincoln to write it out on a moving train, and the context in which the address was delivered in Springfield.

    As instructors head back to the classroom and consider incorporating primary source transcription exercises, it may be of interest for them to know that the Library of Congress has launched “By the People,” a new online crowdsourcing transcription project available at crowd.loc.gov. It invites members of the public to transcribe (and review transcriptions of) original documents from several of the Library’s online collections, including Civil War manuscript collections relating to Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Walt Whitman, and a left hand penmanship contest for Union veterans who lost their right arms during the war. A women’s suffrage campaign to transcribe the personal papers of Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Mary Church Terrell, Carrie Chapman Catt, and Anna E. Dickinson is also available. This sort of transcription work would allow students to explore primary sources, while their efforts would contribute to making the documents more accessible to others.

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