How to Find Free Primary Sources Online

by Erin Dye

Gettysburg Address primary sources

A handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address | image courtesy: Manuscript Division, Library of Congress

Using primary sources is a critical part of effective social studies and English instruction. Primary sources—such as speeches, photographs, diaries, letters, and audio/video footage—are the original records of history. Many primary sources from previous decades and centuries have been digitized and are now available online.

Teaching with primary sources is important for two main reasons. First, students can use primary sources to construct their own understanding of history and improve their critical-thinking skills. Students need these skills to meet the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) for English Language Arts, which emphasize fluency with nonfiction and multimedia texts.

Second, and no less important, using primary sources can be fun! The possibilities for how to use primary sources are endless. For example, do you plan to teach the Gettysburg Address in your class? Why not enhance your instruction by finding an image of the actual document—written in Lincoln’s elegant script? Or share a photograph of the crowd gathered at Gettysburg to hear Lincoln speak? Primary sources like these show that history is more than a description of a speech in a textbook. It is a record of the words and experiences of real people. By using primary sources, students become detectives on a quest to understand the past.

Modern technology has made it easier than ever to access to a wide variety of primary sources. These websites can help you locate primary sources to improve your lessons.

The Library of Congress: The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world, and its website offers an abundance of primary sources related to history, culture, government, the arts. Its American Memory collections are easy to search, and the site offers fun ideas for how to use primary sources in the classroom. Consider using its “Today in History” feature as a bellringer to pique students’ interest at the start of class.

National Archives: As the official record keeper of the United States, the National Archives houses many of nation’s important documents, including the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Its website has images of these documents, as well as many other records. The site also includes many helpful resources for teachers, including an online tool called Docs Teach. Docs Teach includes many types of primary sources, including written documents, audio and video clips, photographs, and maps. It organizes primary sources by time period to make finding information easy. Think about searching this site for photos or documents that connect to units of study or even particular times of year. As Thanksgiving approaches, you can even find and share fun photographs of presidents pardoning turkeys!

The Avalon Project: The Avalon Project at Yale University Law School is a great resource for primary sources related to U.S. and world history. Included in its collection are treaties, trade agreements, and presidential papers. Sources are organized by time period, beginning with ancient and medieval history.

Do you have other suggestions on where to find primary sources online? Leave your ideas in the comments!

Erin DyeErin Dye is a consultant for Green Light Professional Development with extensive experience creating digital materials for interactive whiteboards and iPads. She writes about IWBs and free online resources for teachers.

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