Technology Connections. Online Tools for Primary Sources

Primary sources are the original materials of history—the documents, letters, pictures, and items created during the period being studied. In libraries, especially in archives, we excel in finding primary sources. What happens though when a primary document is far away? What happens when that one copy of a letter, picture, or diary is not attainable? This is when great online sources can be so useful. In this month’s column we will take a look at some handy online tools for primary sources.

Library of Congress ( Of course at the top of the list is the Library of Congress. Their online collection features historic newspapers, digital collections, photographs, and veteran histories, just to name a few. The Library of Congress has millions of items on record including books, video recordings, photographs, and maps. Not all are available online but the selection is growing. The sheer magnitude of the digital archives available to the public is amazing, easy to search, and certainly worth knowing about when looking for online tools for primary resources.

The Smithsonian ( The Smithsonian has over 138 million artifacts, works of art, and specimens within their collection. There are 9.6 million of those artifacts available to be viewed, read, or searched via the Smithsonian’s Collections Search Center. From portraits to letters to books, this collection is immense. This site is useful for language arts, history, science, and a myriad of other K–12 courses. There are so many pieces at the Smithsonian, as the librarian you will want to discuss search strategies, narrowing of topics, and other foundations of information literacy before delving into this amazing site.   

Digital Vaults ( With this interactive site users can work with photos, documents, and popular media from the National Archives. This website provides resources and interactive opportunities for users to access materials on endless U.S. historical topics and themes. Students, teachers, and peer librarians can then organize the resources in any number of ways to relate to our country's history and tell a story. Super fun to search, easy to use, Digital Vaults has an excellent selection of primary resources. If you’re looking for ways to use Digital Vaults, look toward historical- or social studies-based projects for middle to high school students where this fun, interactive tool can be used.

DocsTeach ( Librarians and partner educators can find and create learning activities with primary source documents to promote historical thinking skills. Users can access thousands of primary sources such as letters, photographs, speeches, posters, maps, and videos spanning American history. DocsTeach is always adding more. This site has over 8,000 original documents from the National Archives to create rich, online learning experiences for students.

IWitness ( IWitness is a little bit different when it comes to the idea of primary resources. This site offers access to over 1,500 video narratives of survivors and witnesses to the Holocaust and other genocides. There are no other websites available like it when it comes to the first person viewpoint on the Holocaust. The entire library is also available for student and educator interaction. Users are able to view, navigate, edit, and share video, images, and other content within a secure, password-protected space. It is an amazing video collection.

Zoom In ( Zoom In looks at both primary and secondary sources. This is a website where students can meaningfully engage with U.S. history lessons by reading documents closely and critically, identifying points of view, engaging in discussion, as well as working through evidence-based writing exercises. This online resource not only offers primary documents and materials, it also provides lessons and ideas for librarians and partner teachers to work through in the classroom.

This list includes only a few highlights in seeking out primary sources. All of the online resources listed here offer a wealth of information. Discuss search strategies with your students and teachers. When such an overwhelming amount of material is offered it is easy to fall down the rabbit hole of information, so making sure that students can find the sources they seek is paramount.

About the Author

Heather Moorefield-Lang, EdD, is an assistant professor for the Department of Library and Information Studies at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. To see more of Heather's work visit her website at, email her at, or follow her on Twitter @actinginthelib.

MLA Citation Moorefield-Lang, Heather. "Technology Connections. Online Tools for Primary Sources." School Library Connection, November 2016,

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Entry ID: 2046628

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