To truly understand, for lack of a better word, unprecedented events, students would be well-advised to start with primary sources

U.S. Capitol riot one year later: How primary sources help students understand extremism


To truly understand, for lack of a better word, unprecedented events, students would be well-advised to start with primary sources

The one-year mark of the attack on the U.S. Capitol is a milestone that’s an important reminder of the critical role primary sources play in helping us understand historical events.

As Social Sciences and Government Documents Librarian at CSU Fullerton’s Pollak Library, I wear many hats—including serving as library liaison to our history, American studies, and political science departments. I help guide student inquiry during library instruction, finding connections and exploring evidence through our collection of primary and secondary sources.

More often than not, when students come to the library seeking answers (or context), my recommendations come in the form of primary source materials, which are the evidence of history. They provide insight into the lived experiences of past events through the firsthand accounts and artifacts of everyday life. To truly understand, for lack of a better word, unprecedented events, students would be well-advised to start at the source.

Considering the facts

In a recent congressional hearing held by the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, former Trump administration officials testified for the first time regarding the January 6 Capitol insurrection. Amidst the sharp exchanges, two different versions of history emerged: one in which rioters breached the Capitol, leaving destruction in their wake, and another, where insurrectionists were the victims. As reported by Roll Call:

“It is not the truth to say there was no insurrection. The mob did breach the Senate floor shortly after Vice President Mike Pence, who was presiding, was evacuated from the chamber. members of Congress, staffers, journalists, and others in the building for the counting of the Electoral College votes were in fact in imminent danger.”

While tumultuous, this scenario is not unique. Academics often interpret contentious accounts of historical events. When we explore primary sources from the past, we discover that the items preserved during these events can offer critical insights. Following the Capitol insurrection, items such as flags, banners, and other objects were immediately selected to be preserved as historical artifacts in a national archive. These serve as evidence for what happened that day and are pieces of a much bigger puzzle.

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