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STL 226: Social Studies for Elementary Majors: Online Sites with Primary Resources

History Day Resources

eLibrary MN (ELM) curated collection of History Day resources.
Find primary and secondary sources as well as background information.


Ebooks Minnesota - History Day Collection
Find collections of primary and secondary sources as well as background information.

Topic Specific Websites with Primary Sources

Working with Primary Resources in History from Reference and Users Association (RUSA) of the American Library Association

Sites with Primary Sources
  • National History Day Online Research Tools from the National Archives
    Topics and Time Periods include:
    • American Revolution, Civil War & Reconstruction
    • Industrialization & Immigration
    • The Spanish-American War & World War I
    • The Great Depression and World War II
    • Civil Rights and the 1960s-1970s
    • The Cold War and 1980s-Present
  • Library of Congress: Teachers Resources

    The Library of Congress offers classroom materials and professional development to help teachers effectively use primary sources from the Library's vast digital collections in their teaching. Find Library of Congress lesson plans and more that meet Common Core standards, state content standards, and the standards of national organizations.

  • American Memory Project (Library of Congress)
    Library of Congress is digitizing primary sources from their vast collections.

The online tool for teaching with documents from the National Archives.

We've created a variety of teaching and learning resources based on primary sources in the holdings of the National Archives.

The links connect to European primary historical documents that are transcribed, reproduced in facsimile, or translated.

  • American Decades Primary Sources
    Cross-disciplinary ebook spanning the 20th century. Each volume in the set includes full or excerpted primary sources representing the seminal issues, themes, movements and events from a decade. Includes oral histories, songs, speeches, advertisements, TV, play and movie scripts, letters, laws, legal decisions, newspaper articles, cartoons, recipes, and m
  • OAIster
    Contains records of digital resources from open-archive collections worldwide. Over 25 million records and counting.

Millions of texts, images, videos, and other historical material from dozens of U.S. libraries.

  • Making of America
    Making of America (MoA) is a digital library of primary sources in American social history from the antebellum period through reconstruction. The collection is particularly strong in the subject areas of education, psychology, American history, sociology, religion, and science and technology. The collection currently contains approximately 10,000 books and 50,000 journal articles with 19th century imprints. For more details about the project, see About MoA.

A resource for reliable information about significant people, places, events and things in Minnesota history created by the Minnesota Historical Society.

Sponsored by the Minnesota Digital Library in collaboration with cultural organizations, this site holds a plethora of digitized oral histories from across the state.

  • History Matters: Making Sense of Evidence
    This section helps students and teachers make effective use of primary sources. “Making Sense of Documents” provide strategies for analyzing online primary materials, with interactive exercises and a guide to traditional and online sources. “Scholars in Action” segments show how scholars puzzle out the meaning of different kinds of primary sources, allowing you to try to make sense of a document yourself then providing audio clips in which leading scholars interpret the document and discuss strategies for overall analysis.


Once you have found what looks like an interesting website with a plethora of primary sources, what is your next step? Well, many historians will look critically at where the information comes from. They want to be confident that the sources they have found e.g. scanned images, are reliable and represent an accurate depiction of the original document. Determining the origin or source of an item is referred to as determining the “provenance.” The Society of American Archivists defines provenance as the “information regarding the origins, custody, and ownership of an item or collection.”1

As a student who may be required to evaluate a full-text primary source online, how might you go about determining the quality and reliability of a primary source website? Using the criteria presented below can help you assess the value of the sources you have found.

Authority or Who is Responsible for the Website? 

When applying this criteria to primary sources accessed on the Web, it is important to keep in mind you are evaluating the person or organization responsible for creating the website rather than the creator of the original primary source.

Question Authority: Check for Responsibility

Look for the name of the individual or organization responsible for the page. Look for the following information:

  • "About" link — is there an “about,” “background,” or “FAQ” link that names the individual or organization responsible for this information? To find an "about" link or information about the author/organization you may need to find the homepage for the entire site. This may require backtracking a url, i.e. deleting the end of the URL section by section until you find a main page for the site.

  • If no background information about the author is given, try using Google to search the author's name. You can also check with your library to see if the author has written other books or articles on this topic. If there is no personal author, attempt to find information about an organization by Googling the organization name or by checking with your library.
    The Body of Liberties of the Massachusets Collonie in New England, is a transcribed document dated 1641. There is a link to the University of Chicago at the bottom of the page. An additional link to "Home" is provided on the side. This link home leads to the Founders' Constitution site. A link on this homepage, About Founders provides information on the University of Chicago Press publication from which the documents are taken and gives information about the editors of the original printed volumes. 

  • Credentials — who is the individual or the organization, and what qualifications do they have?

  • Contact address — is there some form of contact information given (e.g. email, etc.)?

Question Authority: Hints from the URL

Websites produced by educational or governmental institutions with collections of primary sources are generally of higher quality than personal websites. Remember though that educational institutions often provide web space for their faculty, staff and students that are not vetted by the institution and government-sponsored sites may engage in propaganda. Personal sites may be recognized by checking the URL (Uniform Resource Locator or website address) for the use of a tilde (~) followed by a personal name, or the words "users," "members," "students," or "faculty." Whenever you come across a personal website, investigate the author's credentials.

Many URLs include the name and type of organization sponsoring the web page. The 3-letter domain codes and 2-letter country codes provide hints on the type of organization. Common domain codes are:



Sample Address

.edu = educational institution

http://docsouth.unc. edu

.gov = US government site

http://memory.loc. gov

.org = organization or association

http://www.historians. org

.com = commercial site

http://www.historynet. com

.net = personal or other site

http://www.besthistorysites. net


Who is the Intended Audience for the Website?

The audience reading level can be inferred by the use of more specialized language. Was the website designed for a general audience looking for basic encyclopedic information? Or does the website look more like an elementary school report? A scholar, writing for an expert audience, may include citations and will use language that is frequently more academic.

Is there a clear purpose or reason for this site? Websites can be created for a variety of purposes: to disseminate information, provide access to collections, support teaching, sell products, persuade, etc. Discerning the purpose can help you determine the quality of the information the site provides.

Some pages explicitly state their purpose, others do not. To find information about the purpose:

  • Check for an “about” or “FAQ” link — these links often provide information about the purpose of the site.
    THOMAS: Legislative Information on the Internet - About THOMAS states "THOMAS was launched in January of 1995, at the inception of the 104th Congress. The leadership of the 104th Congress directed the Library of Congress to make federal legislative information freely available to the public." Since that time THOMAS has expanded the scope of its offerings..."

  • Find the homepage for the site — sometimes the page includes an “about” link or other clues on the purpose of the organization sponsoring the site.

  • Look for an agenda — are documents presented to persuade you to a certain point of view? If the purpose of the website is to persuade, you should examine the material very closely before accepting it as genuine.

Assessing Website Accuracy and Content
Determining the Origin of the Document

In a website of primary sources it is important to determine where the individual or organization acquired the documents. The best sites clearly state the provenance of the original material. Different factors need to be considered based on the format of the document and type of site:

  • Scanned image of a document: The image of scanned documents usually illustrates what the original documents look like. The origin of the documents at a website may be determined by the creator of the website. For example, the Library of Congress website generally supplies documents from its own manuscript collections, but for other organizations providing in-house documents is not always possible. Sometimes, websites will present texts from other document collections, or may provide links to documents at other websites. Also keep in mind that Optical Character Recognition (OCR) is not 100% accurate. Obsolete print characters, faint script, or damaged paper can cause difficulty for programs used to interpret them.

  • Transcribed document: Transcribed documents do not illustrate the original image of the document but only provide the content in plain text format. It is important to discover the original source of transcribed documents to determine if the transcription is complete and accurate. The source, which may be the original documents or published editions, should be cited.

  • Links to external documents: Metasites that link to external documents and websites that use frames require you to track down the original website for the documents for evaluation purposes. A reliable website may link to a document in an external, less reliable site and vice-versa.

    From Revolution to Reconstruction and Beyond: This website, dedicated to the presidents of the United States and complete with the inaugural addresses, was compiled by the University of Groningen in the Netherlands. An original version of George Washington’s First Inaugural Address of April 30, 1789, can be found at the National Archives and Records Administration website. Document sites can be second and third generations removed, like a manuscript that has been copied and re-copied several times over, increasing the possibility that errors may occur.

Evaluating Content and Arrangement

Is the content clearly explained, organized and accessible?

Good web design not only makes an electronic resource easier to use, it is also one indication that the content has been provided, and is being maintained, by a trustworthy source. Although standards of what constitutes “good web design” vary widely, clarity, simplicity and easily-understandable navigational cues are some of the obvious signs. Some considerations are: 

  • Searchable document text.
  • Pages that are legible with clear explanations.
  • Obvious navigational aids that provide access to documents and obvious links on every webpage to the homepage.
  • Individual URLs for each document for ease of linking and citation information.
  • Clear instructions about special software requirements.
  • Subject listing of historical concepts since language changes across time and space.

Primary sources are the building blocks of historical research and should provide the foundation of your argument and interpretation, whereas secondary sources should inform and supplement the primary sources. Use your primary sources as evidence for answering your research question and write based on those sources, rather than “plugging them in” after the fact to bolster your argument. In short, primary sources should drive the paper, not the other way around.

Once you have identified primary sources, it is necessary to read and examine them with a critical eye. It is important to consider both the source itself and the time in which it was created. Remember, too, that sources exist in different formats. Below are some of the questions you may ask about the nature of a source:

  • What is the source and what is it telling you?
  • Who is the author or creator?
  • What biases or assumptions may have influenced the author or creator?
  • Who was the intended audience?
  • What was the significance of the source at the time it was created?
  • Has the source been edited or translated, thus potentially altering the original intent or purpose?
  • What questions could be answered using this source?
  • What, if any, are the limitations of the source?
  • Does your understanding of the source fit with other scholars’ interpretations, or does it challenge their argument?

Consideration of these questions will help you analyze and interpret your sources without overusing and relying on too many direct quotations.