Begin at the Beginning, Primary Sources

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“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop. ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

Although many of us have been in school for what seems like weeks, with the cool breezes of autumn, now is the time to think about school year beginnings. So let’s  talk about a topic that most history teachers love and other teachers dread – primary sources. The Common Core standards, which are part of many state standards, emphasize literacy in all the content areas, reading of informational text, research, citing evidence, deep thinking,and persuasive writing.  Students must be able to analyze evidence gathered and read, to have the ability to compare historical interpretations, and form hypotheses. What better way to do this than use primary source materials or beginning at the beginning for information?  This helpful document from the Library of Congress  Engaging Elementary Students with Primary Sources, reviewed here, provides rationale and teaching strategies to effectively incorporating primary sources in the classroom

Best of all, these types of materials are easy to find online today, can be interesting, fun and even compelling. Online searching can be a much better experience than the dusty reference books of twenty years ago where students hunted for important documents from American history or famous speeches. Back then all students shared one or two copies in the school library, and now every student can peruse a source on his/her device.

What are primary sources? As defined by Library of Congress, “Primary sources are the raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study. They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without firsthand experience.” ( Another place for ideas on incorporating primary sources is the Smithsonian’s helpful guide to “Engaging Students with Primary Sources” in the classroom.(Reviewed here.) 

So where do we go online to find primary source material? It is so easy today with the online digital collections of that include not just text documents of newspapers and magazines, but images, videos, audio files, and even 3-D objects.

Local–The wonderful thing about local material is the built-in interest factor that discusses nearby places, faces, and events. A quick online search can find local historical societies and museums and even colleges and university archives  which may have online collections.

Regional/State– State libraries and archives, including many colleges and organizations, are a wealth of primary source material. Often local resources are incorporated into the state libraries and then blended with national repositories. A good example is Florida Memory  (Reviewed here) that has over 176,000 photographs, more than 110 videos, an audio collection, historical and genealogical collection,and exhibits. Ohio Memory includes a regional resource Cleveland Memory .

Library of Congress
The very best place to begin with primary sources is the Library of Congress (LOC). But because of the overwhelming wealth and depth of items, a great place to begin is with the education and teacher pages at LOC. Learn about the collections and how to use them in all content areas.

Library of Congress American Memory (review here)  provides a digital record of American history and creativity through written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet.

Another vast online resource, especially when each museum may have its own resources. Try to begin with something simple like this activity “You be the Historian.,” reviewed by TeachersFirst

Digital Public Library of America
Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) is a central portal pulling together the collections of US libraries, archives, and museums. These individual collections are available in a single large database. (TeachersFirst review.)

The British Library website, (reviewed here), lets users search through catalogs, order items for research, view exhibitions and connect to information resources worldwide. 

The World Digital Library (reviewed here) makes it possible to discover, study, and enjoy digitized cultural treasures from around the world. Resources include manuscripts, maps, rare books, musical scores, recordings, films, prints, photographs, and architectural drawings. 

Newseum Today’s Front Page has up-to-the-minute visual appeal with thumbnails of worldwide newspapers, bringing to the classroom today’s news that will be tomorrow’s primary sources. (reviewed here.)

The resources shared are only the beginning of the wide-world of primary sources. Find one that works for your content area and share a favorite resource below.


About the author: Paula Deal

Retired high school media specialist, Paula Deal, has been a pioneer in many shifts in the library sciences throughout her career. Paula contributes a monthly column on research, digital citizenship and other ways to find and use media resources in the classroom.

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