Best Sites for Primary Documents in World 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 World 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 American History.

avalon project

Avalon Project
The Avalon Project contains a vast collection digital documents relevant to the fields of Law, History, Economics, Politics, Diplomacy and Government. All documents are in text format and easy to copy / paste. Search by era or collection.

Royal 10 E.IV, f.58

Medieval and Renaissance Material Culture
A vast collection of source material on a diverse array of topics relating to the material culture of the Middle Ages and Renaissance – not merely things, but occupations, clothing, animals, tools, eating-utensils, children and motherhood, games and pastimes, crime and punishment… even suggestions for books which may help you learn more about such matters. (Another section of the site covers clothing and material culture of the 18th century.)

Musicians and an acrobat, Smithfield Decretals (Brit. Lib. Royal 10 E IV, fol. 58), c. 1340

web gallery of art

Web Gallery of Art
The Web Gallery of Art is a virtual museum and searchable database of Western (European) fine arts of the Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassicism, Romanticism, Realism, and Impressionism periods (1000-1900), currently containing over 32.500 reproductions. Artist biographies, commentaries, guided tours, period music, catalogue, free postcard and mobile services are provided.

Internet History Sourcebooks Project
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted historical texts presented cleanly (without advertising or excessive layout) for educational use. Includes sourcebooks on ancient, medieval and modern history as well as regional and thematic collections.

Weighing CottonThe 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.

Title: Weighing Cotton, Bombay
Creator: Johnson, William; Henderson, William
Date: ca. 1855-1862


World Digital Library
World Digital Library provides multiple ways to search and browse content, including by place, time, topic, type of item and contributing institution. And every item can be viewed with state-of-the art zoom features in order to catch all the fine detail. To date, there are about 1,460 digital items included in the World Digital Library, in a variety of formats – books, photographs, films, sound recordings, manuscripts and maps.

Kimbo In 1839, the Spanish slave ship Amistad set sail from Havana to Puerto Principe, Cuba. The ship was carrying 53 Africans who, a few months earlier, had been abducted from their homeland in present-day Sierra Leone to be sold in Cuba. Drawing by William H. Townsend Around 1839 CE – 1840 CE


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.

Korean women going out c. 1904
“The inscription imprinted on the postcard in Japanese characters indicates an outing of ‘Pyongyang’ women. The big objects over women’s heads were used to hide their face and to protect from sunshine or rain.”

Google Cultural Institute
Google has partnered with hundreds of museums, cultural institutions, and archives to host the world’s cultural treasures online. Here you can find artworks, landmarks and world heritage sites, as well as digital exhibitions that tell the stories behind the archives of cultural institutions across the globe.

Hans Holbein the Younger - The Ambassadors

The Google Cultural Institute includes :
Art Project
Google Art Project is an online platform through which the public can access high-resolution images of artworks housed in the initiative’s partner museums.The platform enables users to virtually tour partner museums’ galleries, explore physical and contextual information about artworks, and compile their own virtual collection. The “walk-through” feature of the project uses Google’s Street View technology. Users can log in with their Google Account to create their own collection.
Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors
Art Project on YouTube

World Wonders Project
World Wonders brings modern and ancient world heritage sites online using Street View, 3D modelling and other Google technologies. Explore historic sites including Stonehenge, the archaeological areas of Pompeii and the Great Barrier Reef as if you were there. World Wonders on YouTube

warrior wearing a mail coat

Historic Moments
Explore Historic Moments, Cultural Figures, Science & Technology, and other categories to browse through photos, videos, manuscripts and documents on a wide range of topics.

Detail from an Anglo-Saxon casket from around AD 700-750
British Museum London
Historic Moments

Hat tip to Peter Gallagher for lead on Google Cultural Institute