Using Primary Sources to Learn About Civics and History

Civil Rights Act Newspaper-

By Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

Primary sources are artifacts, documents, letters, autobiographies, photographs, recordings, video footage or any other source created during the time period one is studying. With the rapid advancement of technology, primary sources that were often difficult to access by researchers (Often due to issues such travel or financial restrictions, or perhaps not having proper authorization) are now being digitized and made available online. Primary sources can not only be used in historical research, but can also be a tremendous resource for the study of civic responsibilities.

In this entry we will highlight some interactive projects designed to teach civics and citizenship, supported by grants from the Library of Congress. The resources can also be accessed via this site. The projects are intended to provide students with opportunities and resources to learn about civic participation utilizing primary sources from the Library of Congress’ online collections. Please click on the links below to explore the various interactive sites designed to teach history and civics using primary sources.

This resource was developed by iCivics and teaches history and civics through the use of primary source documents and evidence-based learning. The resources can be accessed with mobile devices, making it more accessible for students.  The site teaches the importance of reasoning based on evidence and valid sources. The exercises and lessons teaches students how to identify, evaluate and critique evidence, contextualize information, so that they may as a result write sound supporting arguments.

This site is a customizable system using primary sources for inquiry-based learning. Students at all levels (Elementary through Secondary) can use primary sources from the Library of Congress can challenge a question, collect evidence, and make a case guided by Casemaker.

Eagle Eye Citizen
This is a great resource that challenges middle and high school students by leading them in solving and creating interactive challenges on American history, civics, and government. This site also utilizes Library of Congress primary sources to help students develop civic understanding and historical thinking skills.

Engaging Congress
Engaging Congress is a series of game-based learning activities that explores the basic tenets of representative government and the challenges that it faces in contemporary society. Primary source documents are used to examine the history and evolution of issues that confront Congress today.

Kid Citizen
The site introduces a new way for elementary students to engage with history through primary sources. There are nine interactive episodes that children can explore, focusing on civics and government concepts by investigating primary source photographs from the Library of Congress. Students can also connect what they find on the site with their daily lives. Teachers can also use KidCitizen cloud software tools to create their own episodes and share them with students.


  1. Primary sources are a good way to teach. Secondary sources are too, but primary sources are made during the time period so they are more accurate and it’s cool to see something if you’re studying a time period from a long time ago. 

  2. Primary sources are important while learning about civics and history. I know that I did not have many experiences in elementary school where we looked at primary sources. These resources are something I think that every teacher should have to expose their students to as much as possible. It is a great way to let the children see what was actually happening coming from someone who lived it.

  3. Using primary sources is something that I think is overlooked in Social Studies. As you mentioned, it is far easier than ever before to access primary sources with technology. Whether it is simple pictures, newspapers, or something else, it adds a distinct perspective that students need to see and engage with. It is also very easy to find bias in primary sources and can be a good way to force students to think deeper and look for both sides of the story. Students need to be able to look at all kinds of information and put together their thoughts and create an argument and primary sources a great way to help do that. It can also be a good mix up instead of a lecture, reading, or other methods that get the student engaged. Primary sources are a great resource to use in the classroom!

  4. The idea of teaching students using primary sources is super important. The amount of information that the students can learn, on top of the lessons that are from their textbook, is so much more. Also, it is very useful to students that the primary sources can be now accessed on the internet at anytime. Therefore as a teacher, one can reserve the laptops and make a full week out of researching primary sources. I really like the ‘engaging congress’ site and I would love to use it to teach one day. I think students would be really engaged in a lesson like this and will keep this site to use one day.

  5. A typical trend in classrooms when students are doing computer-based research is to have them focus their efforts on online resources. Without proper, guided practice, students can get lost in online research, not find any usable material, or even find inaccurate information. The link in the article for the Library of Congress site is an excellent resource for creating a bespoke, offline research library on classroom computers. I have already seen this technique work in classrooms, but with limited topics and only physical copies of the information. The Library of Congress’ downloadable, primary source files would provide teachers with a cost-free way to put large quantities of primary sources on every tablet, computer, and Chromebook in their classroom. Even though these libraries are offline, they would still be searchable and let students practice identifying primary sources for when they have to sift through the internet independently.

  6. I think primary sources are critical in the classroom. I used to do a “current event” every week in my social studies class, where we would find an article from a newspaper and talk about it and its importance to our country. It really taught me a lot in my social studies class.

  7. Primary sources are one of the most important sources when learning about history. It is so helpful to learn the opinions of the time from the people who were living at that time. It is essential that these primary sources are taught to students because they give them a more accurate feel as to how people of a time period acted and thought. Primary sources can also allow students to become more invested because they can now look at history in terms of people instead of just words in a textbook. Primary sources are one of the most important tools to make history fun.

  8. These would be better used rather than just google and Wikipedia. These articles would be best for research projects because there would be more information true that misread and written wrong. Newsletters will help the reader to almost time travel back to the day it happened, and be able to get firsthand who and what was involved in that day. Today we have Wikipedia which is edited by us today and when something happened hundreds of years ago, and we are writing about it today, there could be a misunderstood fact that is taken the wrong way. When we have access to all the databases made in that time period, it makes everything we do research on valid.

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