Best Sites for Primary Documents in US History

Common Core offers an incentive for teachers to use historic documents to build literacy skills in a content area while empowering students to be the historian in the classroom. But document-based (DBQ) instruction in this context requires four key elements to be successful:

  • The right documents.
  • Knowing how to look at them.
  • Letting students discover their own patterns, then asking students to describe, compare and defend what they found.
  • Basing the task on enduring questions, the kind that students might actually want to answer.

I’ve assigned my pre-service social studies methods class the task of designing some DBQs and I assembled a list of some of my favorite sources for finding historic documents in American History. More on my assignment here. All these sites feature good search engines and the ability to download documents for use in classroom projects. Here they are – in no particular order. Feel free to comment with links to your favorite sites.  Click here for best sites for World History.

Woman and Child

A Democracy of Images:
Photographs from the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Selected from the approximately 7,000 images collected since the museum’s photography program began thirty years ago, in 1983. Ranging from daguerreotype to digital, they depict the American experience and are loosely grouped around four ideas: American Characters, Spiritual Frontier, America Inhabited, and Imagination at Work.

Woman and Child 
ca. 1850,
daguerreotype with applied color
Jeremiah Gurney


Digital Public Library of America (DPLA)
The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) brings together the riches of America’s libraries, archives, and museums, and makes them freely available to the world. Search the collection by exhibition, place, date and a growing number of 2nd party plug in apps. The DPLA offers a single point of access to millions of items—photographs, manuscripts, books, sounds, moving images, and more—from libraries, archives, and museums around the United States. Users can browse and search the DPLA’s collections by timeline, map, format, and topic; save items to customized lists; and share their lists with others. Users can also explore digital exhibitions curated by the DPLA’s content partners and staff.

Fighting American Creator U.S. Senate. Committee on the Judiciary. Created Date 04/1954 Provider: National Archives and Records Administration
Billy and Graham Green at the beach

The Commons / Flickr
The goal of The Commons is to share hidden treasures from the world’s public photography archives. Includes material from museums and archives all over the world. Fully searchable by theme, keywords or tags. Please help make the photographs you enjoy more discoverable by adding tags and leaving comments. Your contributions and knowledge make these photos even richer*

Billy and Graham Green from the Salvation Army Camp practice a little deceit, Collaroy Beach, ca. 1940 /
photographer unknown

Dial Comes to Town

Have Fun with History
A resource for students, educators and all lovers of American History. Loaded with historic videos. Many in the public domain. People and Events in History are categorized by century so they’re easy to find. Or to locate by history topic, choose History Subjects.

Dial Comes to Town
Bell Telephone

march on washington

FedFlix features the best movies of the United States Government, from training films to history, from our national parks to the U.S. Fire Academy and the Postal Inspectors, all of these fine flix are available for reuse without any restrictions whatsoever. Browse by collection, subject or keyword.

The March on Washington – Scenes from Civil Rights March in Washington, D.C., August 1963.

Smartly dressed couple

US National Archives Docs Teach – well organized by era / theme – thousands of primary source documents to bring the past to life as classroom teaching tools from the billions preserved at the National Archives. Use the search field above to find written documents, images, maps, charts, graphs, audio and video in our ever-expanding collection that spans the course of American history.

Smartly dressed couple seated on an 1886-model bicycle for two ca. 1886
Life Saving tamales

LIFE photo archive hosted by Google
Search millions of photographs from the LIFE photo archive, stretching from the 1750s to today. Organized by era, but you can also search by theme. Most were never published and are now available for the first time through the joint work of LIFE and Google
Second Texas Take Out: Life Saving Tamales
A view showing the Tamale industry in Brownsville Market plaza.   Brownsville, TX, US 1939
Photographer: Carl Mydans

Girls Say Yes To Boys Who Say No

The Retronaut
The Retronaut is an eclectic collection of images from around the world. Tagline “See the past like you wouldn’t believe.” Search by year, category and clusters. I guarantee you will get lost in the unusual ephemera found in this site.

Girls Say Yes To Boys Who Say No 1968
“Joan Baez encouraged draft resistance during her concerts, and is believed to have suggested that women opposed to violence should go for men who were resisting the military draft. This suggestion soon turned into the poster featuring Baez, which was created by Larry Gates and sold to raise funds for the Draft Resistance movement. The poster features the Joan Baez, along with her sisters Pauline and Mimi.”

Front cover of Jackie Robinson comic book

Library of Congress
The LOC is a vast collection in a variety of formats – posters, photographs, video, audio, maps and more. You can search by collections – for example prints and photographs. Or search by a variety of themes or topics. Includes material from around the world. A good place to start is the teacher section which includes many resources and lesson plans useful teachers. You can even search by Common Core standards.

Front cover of Jackie Robinson comic book
part of a larger collection – Baseball and Jackie Robinson
Created/Published c1951. Shows head-and-shoulders portrait of Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn Dodgers cap; inset image shows Jackie Robinson covering a slide at second base

A Wife Can Blame Herself If She Loses Love

Ad Access
Ad Access is a project of the Duke University Libraries contains over 7,000 U.S. and Canadian advertisements covering five product categories – Beauty and Hygiene, Radio, Television, Transportation, and World War II propaganda – dated between 1911 and 1955. Well indexed by collection, era. See more Duke collections here

A Wife Can Blame Herself If She Loses Love By Getting “Middle-Age” Skin! Palmolive Company 1938 

Save your cansUNT Digital Library
The UNT Digital Library is home to materials from the University’s research, creative, and scholarly activities, and also showcases content from the UNT Libraries’ collections. Materials include theses, dissertations, artwork, performances, musical scores, journals, government documents, rare books, and historical posters. Search by locations, dates, types or collections

Title: Save your cans
Artist: McClelland Barclay 
Date: 1943
Agency: War Production Board

Chronicling America is a free, searchable database of historic U.S. newspapers. Search America’s historic newspaper pages from 1836-1922 or use the U.S. Newspaper Directory to find information about American newspapers published between 1690-present.

What One May Wear, [on Bicyles] The Herald (Los Angeles, CA), June 2, 1895
What One May Wear, [on Bicyles] The Herald (Los Angeles, CA), June 2, 1895

3 Replies to “Best Sites for Primary Documents in US History”

  1. What a wonderful find! This is a great post. Many of these were new to me. Local historical society and museum websites can also be good places for primary sources.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.