Online with Primary Sources: Sound and Film as Primary Sources

When I was studying to become a teacher many years ago, I took a course in audio-visual techniques for the classroom. To meet one requirement, I produced a beautiful three-color mimeographed teaching worksheet. For another, I had to prove that I could skillfully thread a 16-mm film projector and run a reel-to-reel audiotape.

Media of Today

Today, digital media, available at the click of a mouse, has replaced media played on cumbersome old equipment. Many of those old, original films and sound recordings have been digitized over the past few years and fit the definition of primary sources. Adventurous educators are discovering that this dynamic category of primary sources adds richness and authenticity to learning.

In their out-of-school lives, today’s students experience mixed media through every possible combination of sound and film. They download or stream podcasts and music to their iPods. They addictively search YouTube. No longer mere media consumers, many have also joined the growing ranks of amateur media producers. In this saturated media environment, students have the tools at hand to effectively use and make meaning out of primary source sound and film files. Through remixing primary sources and incorporating storytelling techniques, they can prove their grasp of concepts without bubble tests!

Sources for Primary Source Films

Part of the challenge of using films in teaching is simply remembering to look for them. The collections listed here can be used to begin compiling links that match curriculum:


This huge collection is part of the Internet Archive, a nonprofit that was founded with the goal of building an Internet library and preserving “historical collections that exist in digital format.” FedFlix features “the best movies of the United States Government.” These high-quality, downloadable films are available for reuse without any restrictions whatsoever. Many hold Creative Commons Licenses.

►Prelinger Archives (a subset of FedFlix).

Although the Library of Congress now holds many of this collection’s titles, those remaining in the Prelinger Archives are among my favorites. These ephemeral films include advertising, educational, industrial, and amateur works not collected elsewhere. Largely because of copyright law, there are few post-1964 movies here, but this unique collection builds context for the study of earlier eras. For instance, an “I Like Ike” animated television commercial shows the innocence of 1950’s political messages when compared to today’s negative campaign rhetoric. “Are You Popular?” is a fine example of a post-World War II social guidance film that warns, “Nice girls don’t park in cars with boys.” Other examples are old newsreels, commercials extolling “healthy” cigarettes, and “Duck and Cover” instructions for surviving a nuclear blast.


SnagFilms is “committed to finding the world’s most compelling documentaries and making them available to the wide audience these titles deserve.” Technically, documentaries are not primary sources, but many of these films are heavily populated with primary sources. SnagFilms allows users to “snag” its films and put them on the Web. Try clicking on the link to SnagLearning at the bottom of the homepage. Here you will find films from such sources as National Geographic and PBS, all carefully selected for students from middle school and older. Keep checking for new titles by subscribing to Snag-Learning’s e-mail newsletter or by following it on Facebook or Twitter.

►Library of Congress “American Memory.” +More browse options +Browse Collections Containing Motion Pictures

“American Memory” has sixteen collections containing motion pictures. Many cover the turn-of-the-century period when film was coming into its own as a way to document events and people. I recommend the films in “The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898-1906” that capture everyday-life scenes. The “Theodore Roosevelt: His Life and Times on Film” collection records Roosevelt’s life from the Spanish-American War in 1898 to his death in 1919. Finally, if you teach any type of natural disaster lesson, take a look at “Before and After the Great Earthquake” and “Fire: Early Films of San Francisco, 1897-1916.”

Favorite Sources for Audio

The audio archive of the Internet Archive contains thousands of free digital recordings ( ). Old time radio shows such as Gunsmoke, Dragnet, and Our Miss Brooks are fun to use for social history. Students can listen to “Popeye, the Sailor Man” (1931) for a lesson on heroes.

More serious recordings can also be found at the Internet Archive. For example, there’s a live radio broadcast describing the street celebrations following the 1945 Japanese surrender that ended World War II. The “Presidential Recordings” include speeches as well as secret recordings from 1940 to 1973.

By browsing the Library of Congress American Memory site under “More browse options” for “Collections containing sound recordings,” twenty-five collections can be found. “Voices from the Days of Slavery” is one of the most powerful ( ). You will also find a number of music collections such as African-American music, Civil War band music, and folk music from the Dust Bowl.

Several of the Library of Congress multimedia collections are a mix of film and audio. “Inventing Entertainment” has some of the earliest examples of Thomas Edison’s silent films and experimental audio ( ).

Teaching with Film and Sound

No matter what primary source film or sound file is used, there are three simple questions that can be used before, during, and after viewing:

  • What do you see or hear?
  • What do you think you know?
  • What do you want to know?

Some teachers prepare lengthy worksheets designed to force students to record every detail. An alternative is to ask more general and essential questions that guide students to main themes and controversies in early films or recordings. Instead of handing out a fill-in-the-blank worksheet to keep students on track, ask them to consider how attitudes toward the event have changed over time. Can students identify a point of view? Whose story was not told?

More importantly, what questions do the students have about the media content? As with all primary source learning, student-generated questions can lead to further research. Look for controversies, evidence of bias, or simplistic historical interpretations. What research will help students learn to challenge film or audio interpretations?

When using documentaries, it is good to ask students to discuss the role of primary sources both visually and as historical evidence. What primary sources would they need to gather and analyze to make their own film?

Note that when working with old films or audio files, it is best to download them to a presentation computer to avoid streaming problems such as limited bandwidth or the need for several types of streaming software.

Proof of Learning

Ideas abound for incorporating film and sound files into technology-enabled projects. Here’s a short list to jumpstart creative thinking:

  • A podcast of student film critics.
  • A movie with a primary source audio soundtrack and student narration to explain a corresponding primary source image.
  • A digital story of an ancestor, who fought in a war, with primary source film inserted to enhance the reality of the experience.
  • A recorded performance of a famous speech, song, or story from history.

I have one final piece of advice. Primary source films and recordings have significant teaching value. Don’t just put in a film or play some music as a reward. Analyze them! Learn from them!

Mary J. Johnson

MLA Citation Johnson, Mary J. "Online with Primary Sources: Sound and Film as Primary Sources." School Library Monthly, 27, no. 7, April 2011. School Library Connection,

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Entry ID: 2010121

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