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Finding primary sources online

New York Teacher

If you need to find something online, you just google it, right? It’s a surefire way to find information, but not necessarily the best information. When locating materials to use in the classroom, high-quality resources are a must. And in an age when anything and everything can be faked or manipulated, we must take special care when researching resources online.

Many well-known and respected organizations have fully digitized their collections of primary sources and made them available free of charge, so they’re a great place to start. Students can see and interact with original documents, audio and even video, rather than reading about them secondhand. And while the sophistication of the language of primary-source documents can sometimes be a hurdle, there are online supports to help students comprehend this material [see “Using Leveled Reading Sites” for ways to make these documents more accessible]. Many of these sites also house educator resources to help teach students how to use primary sources in the classroom.

For historic images, LIFE Magazine’s archive, with its unparalleled array of millions of photos from the 1750s to the 21st century, can’t be beat. Hosted by Google Images, the site has a strong search function. Just add “source: life” to any Google Image search to look within the LIFE photo archive to find images of popular culture, historic events, famous people, American life through the decades, and more.

The National Archives, not surprisingly, has perhaps the most comprehensive collection of primary sources related to American history. But you may not know about its amazing lesson plans on teaching students to work with primary sources. A great place to begin is its related website,, which contains 100 milestone documents of U.S. history.

The New York Public Library’s digital collections contain photos, maps, manuscripts, video and more. It’s a New York-centric site, but also contains national and global material. Its Early American Manuscripts Project contains more than 50,000 pages of documents relating to the founding of the United States and contains the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, to name a few. No library card is needed to access any of these resources.

The Library of Congress has a wide array of multimedia primary-source materials — audio files, historic newspapers, documents and public domain films. One of the highlights is the WPA Slave Narratives. Recorded in the 1930s, former slaves were interviewed about their firsthand experiences. The Manuscript Reading Room is an actual location in the library’s building in Washington, D.C., but many of the sources have been digitized and can be viewed online. It also has a content-rich area for educators, with classroom materials, guides for teachers and online professional development.

If you’re looking for copyright-free e-books, audio and video files, check out the Internet Archive. Among the thousands of resources, you can find famous speeches, songs from the 20th century, news programs, early historic movies and images, and even live concerts.

Within a few clicks on a trusted site like these cited above, you can easily find a plethora of primary sources and high-quality information for the classroom.