Thing 22: Teaching & Learning with Primary Sources

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Thanks to the ease with which old photos, text documents, maps and other materials can be digitized and shared over the internet, we have an amazing wealth of original research materials at our fingertips. Documents, photos, maps, diaries, letters, etc. that were created at the time of an event and share the observations of people who observed or participated in an event are considered primary sources.

Working with primary sources gives students the opportunity to explore, examine original materials, form their own questions and come to their own conclusions.

This short video nicely explains the differences between primary and pecondary sources.


Ideas, lesson plans, activities and tips on how to teach with primary sources.


Explore some of the many amazing repositories we have access to over the web.

  • Digital Public Library of America – The DPLA is a great starting point in your research. It provides access to public domain or openly licensed material from museums, libraries, archives and other organizations around the country.
    • Primary Source Sets – Collections of material  that explore topics in history, literature, and culture. Each set includes a topic overview, ten to fifteen primary sources, links to related resources, and a teaching guide. Seems to be geared to  Grades 6 and up.
  • NY Heritage Newly relaunched NY Heritage site. “New York Heritage is a portal for learning more about the people, places and events that contributed to the making of New York State.”  Includes photos, maps, postcards, newspapers, letters and more. Content from over 200 libraries and other history archives. Includes a page of lesson plan ideas.  A good place to start is to check for participating organizations in your region.
  • New York Public Library Digital Collections – Over 700,000 digitized items from the NYPL’s collections. “new materials added every day, featuring prints, photographs, maps, manuscripts, streaming video, and more.”  The ABOUT NYPL DIGITAL COLLECTIONS page will help you get started exploring. Fascinating examples of how the NYPL collections have been put to use via their open data connections.
    • New York Public Library Invites a Deep Digital Dive  Some fascinating examples
    • The Green Book – The Green Book was a travel guide published between 1936 and 1966 that listed hotels, restaurants, bars, gas stations, etc. where black travelers would be welcome. Using data extracted from the books themselves, we welcome you to visualize a trip one may have taken using these books. Learn More.
    • Old NYC – Select locations on a map of Manhattan and view long ago photos of that location.
  • Library of Congress Digital Collections
  • American Memory Project – The American Memory Historical Collections from the Library of Congress provide free access to historical images, maps, sound recordings, and motion pictures that document the American experience.
  • Google Arts and Culture – What an amazing collection of art, stories, and cultural treasures from around the world.
  • Google Books – Lots of full-text books with great source material. Use the Tools menu to see search limiters. Select “Free Google ebooks”.
  • Docs Teach – Digital platform for teaching with resources from the US National Archives. Browse materials by historical period and document type. Use online learning activities created by other educators or create your own.
  • Europeana – A collaboration of European countries to create a central index to cultural materials held in European libraries, museums, archives and more. Much like the DPLA project in the US.  “Explore 51,132,068 artworks, artifacts, books, videos and sounds from across Europe.”
  • World Digital Library –  A collaboration between the Library of Congress, UNESCO, and other educational institutions around the world.  Includes material from many cultures and countries. Descriptive information can be read in 7 languages or listened to in English.  Browse by country, time period, topics, type of material, languages (145 of them!) and by participating institution.
  • Example Digital Libraries/Repositories – Long list of even more digital collections from Louisiana State University.


Remember, you don’t have to explore everything or do all of these activities – just be sure you’re learning something new!

Activity Suggestions – Some ideas and activities to consider for this lesson:

  • Explore the lesson plans and activities in the Using Primary Sources section of the lesson. Find something that might work with your students.
  • Explore some of the digital repositories in the DIGITAL COLLECTIONS section.
  • Create a collection of material to use in a lesson with one of the tools that has a “create a collection” option.
  • Feeling inspired? Create your own activity based on resources you’ve discovered.
  • Explore any other aspect of this topic that interests you.  As long as you’re learning something new!

Your Blog Post

  • Reflect on any articles you read and the materials you explored.
  • What new ideas did you glean?
  • How might you use these materials with your students?
  • Share your experiences and ideas about the topic.
  • Link to any material you might have created.


  • Write & publish your blog post.
  • Copy the URL (webpage address) for your post.
  • Return to your Google Classroom, find the assignment page for the lesson you just completed and follow the directions for turning in and sharing your work.

*Only for students participating in the workshop for PD credit hours through the Google Classroom.

5 thoughts on “Thing 22: Teaching & Learning with Primary Sources

  1. TPS Teachers Network is another resource. You have to ask to join, but it is free. Here’s a summary: “The TPS Teachers Network is intended to bring together teachers with a shared interest in improving instructional practice and impacting student learning through Library of Congress primary sources. The network provides tools to connect, communicate, and collaborate with peers and primary source experts online by employing social media tools and activities such as posting, commenting, discussion forums, and media and bookmark sharing, all in a private network.” (

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