Historians are like detectives. They look to many different types of source materials to find clues about past events. They analyze and interpret each source to see if it is valid, useful, and accurate. Some sources may support or contradict the historian’s own ideas about the past. Other sources may contradict one another or contain information. It is important for historians to be open-minded to different viewpoints to ensure they get a balanced view of history. They need to decide which sources are the most trustworthy. Sometimes, historians even decide their own conclusions about the past are incorrect. (From Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Race.)
If you are discovering the “Uncovering the Past: Analyzing Primary Sources” series for the first time, I am going to sum up my review quickly by repeating what I wrote in 2015 when the first books in the series came out: “These books are amazing.”
Identifying bias, prejudice, and perspective, and learning to examine more than one source of information are critical skills for students of the information age, both in research and in our daily consumption of media. Each book in the series has a historical context, but the focus of the series is to teach students the skills to examine the historical evidence critically, recognizing that evidence can be biased intentionally and unintentionally.
Each book in the series includes “Internet Guidelines” at the back. These guidelines are clear and concise. They provide the reader with specific questions to help them when analyzing the quality and reliability of information they find on the Internet. For example, “Have you checked all possible sites? Don’t just look on the first page a search engine provides. Remember to try government sites and research papers.” (The Civil War.)
Another very useful feature of the books is the “Analyze This” boxes that promote higher level thinking.
Now that Arctic waters are ice free for longer each year, more ships can sail through the area. What effects might there be on historic sites such as the graves on Beechey Island? What ways can governments protect them? (Search for the Northwest Passage.)
Like the previous books in the “Uncovering the Past: Analyzing Primary Sources” series, the six latest books, The Civil War, Gold Rushes, Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Race, Search for the Northwest Passage, The Space Race, and The War of 1812, use eye-witness accounts, photographs, art work, illustrations, and newspaper reports, as well as songs of the period, to teach students how to think critically about their sources of information. Each book ends with a look at a present-day example of similar events as evidence, sadly, that history does repeat.
These latest books in the series include recognition of the impact of the historic events being examined from the perspective of Indigenous and Inuit people, as well as Chinese workers, women, and African Americans. (I look forward to the day when it won’t be noteworthy to mention that a series includes groups that have traditionally been overlooked or omitted, but, for now, I think it is still important information to note in book reviews.)
The California Gold Rush left a lasting mark on the region. With the Forty-niners flowing in, entire Indigenous societies were pushed from their land. In documents and advertisements, the land was referred to as “empty.” The villages, hunting grounds, ceremonial and burial grounds were trampled on, cleared off, and built over. Early settlers believed in Manifest Destiny: the idea that expansion and settlement in the North American West was the right of Americans with European ancestors. They didn’t feel the need to ask permission or worry about what would happen to Indigenous peoples. Violence and disease killed off a third of the region’s 150,000 or more American Indians. (Gold Rushes.)
Each book includes a table of contents, a timeline of events which includes a map, a bibliography, a glossary, an index, and a list of related websites. As mentioned earlier, there is a useful set of Internet Guidelines at the back of each book also.
The Civil War includes an examination of the impact of new-to-the-time technology, such as photography, on the dissemination of news of the day. It also points out how the choices of whose voices were deemed worth recording and whose voices are missing was shaped by the ideologies of the time. For example, not much has been recorded by African American soldiers.
Gold Rushes looks critically at primary and secondary sources about the California Gold Rush and the Klondike Gold Rush, with a focus on race and ethnicity, including the California Foreign Miners Tax. After this practice was successfully challenged, it was still allowed to apply to Chinese miners. In the chapter, “Modern Examples: History Repeated”, it is pointed out that environmental and human rights abuses continue, with special mention of Canada’s need to improve in this area.
Nuclear Weapons and the Arms Race includes information on the importance of visual and auditory sources, the credibility of sources, and ways to analyze for bias. “Barefoot Gen: A Cartoon Story of Hiroshima, Vol. 1”, is used as an example of primary source material. Released in 2004 as a graphic novel, this up-to-date first-hand account from a survivor of the bombing of Hiroshima should help to make the importance of primary source materials clear to young historians.
Search for the Northwest Passage includes a discussion of how extreme weather conditions can affect the preservation of primary source material. Some members of the Franklin expedition were preserved as mummies in the ice. The value of Inuit oral histories to researchers is also examined.
The Space Race is a perfect vehicle for exploring bias in primary source material from the United States and the Soviet Union/Russia. This book also looks at the under-reported role of women in this period.
The War of 1812 is also an excellent topic for examining bias, point of view, and context since the causes and outcomes have been interpreted and analyzed frequently by both Canadian and American historians.
Overall, the six latest books in the “Uncovering the Past: Analyzing Primary Sources” series continue to be excellent resources for teaching students critical thinking skills to analyze sources of information in historic subject content. The development of these skills will be highly transferable to other subject areas.
Because the historic content of some of the books is more directly applicable to Canadian school curriculum, you will want to consider the appropriateness of each book individually to get the best value for building your library collection.
Suzanne Pierson, a retired teacher-librarian, currently instructs Librarianship courses at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario.