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. These a great resource that I would have loved to learn by when I was a students in high school. In a world where modern technology is every way, I don’t see why more teachers don’t teach with these. This gives you history in real time instead of taking American history for the 1000th time in a row. Giving the students real world lessons.

  2. Using primary resources to learn about civics and history is a wonderful way to show kids a firsthand perspective. When taking social studies classes, I was always more interested in what the people who actually lived through whatever we were learning about had to say, not what the textbook authors had to say. Getting a firsthand account is something that kids need in order to understand what was going on in certain time periods.

  3. This is a great resource that I can show my students when studying about primary and secondary sources. In a world of modern technology this is a great way to have students look at old documents. It makes it that much easier to access for students because of the technology around them. I definitely want to utilize these types of resources with my students someday.

  4. This is an amazing article filled with different resources that i know my students would love and be engaged in using SOme of these resources especially the interactive ones. Technology has made it incredibly easier to find these sources and to bring them into the classroom setting.

  5. I really enjoyed exploring the sources you provided, especially Casemaker. I know my students would be engaged if we used these in class. I’m excited to try some of these when I student teach in the Fall! I like using primary sources in my lessons because it truly immerses students in history. I agree that technology has made it easier to access more primary sources, which is great for teachers. Students also respond well to technology so these sources are perfect for the classroom.

  6. This is an incredible list of resources that can be used for education. Especially because of the recent fire in the Notre Dame which destroyed so many historical artifacts the only way we can have these documents forever will be through digitization. Whats also nice is that unlike a lot of resources these websites are interactive which I feel helps students learn more than simply browsing.

  7. I think that this article is very important for future as well as current educators. In my personal opinion primary resources are one of the best ways for students to learn about history from the perspective of that time period and so having these resources so they’re readily available and easy to access is invaluable. I think back to when I was in school we did not use a lot of primary resources because they were hard to come by, however I am saving these links so my students have the opportunity to view them in ways that I did not. Learning from History books can be useful and most beneficial in some circumstances but I think it is important for the students to have teachers who know how to use all types of resources to teach and this article provides links to make this easier for us.

  8. I think talking about the importance of primary sources in teaching social studies concepts is a great resource in the classroom. When we come across a source knowing if it is reliable and factual is something students should be able to do on their own.

  9. This article was great to gain primary sources to help teach history and social studies. I liked how their were a lot of interactive resources for students to explore. I think that having the resources coming straight from someone that actually experienced the different events helps students to be able to gain a deeper understanding of the topic/event.

  10. It is very important to bring primary sources into the classroom to give students the opportunity to learn factual information straight from the source. This article give many goods resources to use in schools. This is especially important to meet some of the standards like SS-EP-5.1.1 that says “Students will use a variety of primary and secondary sources to interpret the past.”

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