Finding Appropriate Primary Source Evidence Online

James Miles

James Miles teaches Social Studies, I.B. History, and Social Justice 12 at West Vancouver Secondary School, where he has taught for six years. He recently completed his MA in Social Studies Education at UBC. He is interested in incorporating local history, historical photographs, and other primary sources into his classroom.

Finding relevant, readable, and also revealing primary sources is a time consuming task.  Some textbooks have started to include primary source excerpts in places, but ultimately much of the work has to be done online: scouring public archives, educational websites and organizations devoted to the study of history. 

The purpose of this post is mainly to share (and link to) some resources I have found invaluable. This, of course is a work in process; I constantly find myself searching (and hoping) to stumble upon an elusive gold mine of short readable sources all pertinent to what my students are studying at the time. While that is unrealistic there are many great resource online. 

There are many websites that offer extensive databases of Canadian documents, often orientated towards teachers or students.  Examples include THEN/HiERYork University’s LibraryCollections Canada (Library and Archives Canada), and These databases are excellent, but often require some adapting, or tampering, to make them useful for the classroom.

Limited time almost always prevents me from utilizing these databases in the secondary classroom the way I would like to. Unequal access to computers and laptops and lack of connectivity also prohibit my attempts to use primary source documents. Luckily, several sites offer useable, appropriate documents that I would like to suggest.

In the Canadian context, the Critical Thinking Consortium’s (TC2) History Docs project is a great tool for teachers and students. It provides sets of documents focusing on specific themes or questions in Canadian history. I have made several of these into student booklets with guiding sourcing and corroboration questions, often leading to one larger and more complex critical question answered in a paragraph response. While some of these documents require a small subscription fee, many are offered for free.

In the United StatesStanford’s History Education Group (SHEG) offers a series of lessons online in the curriculum resource titled, Reading Like a Historian. Each lesson includes primary documents with corresponding activities. While the majority are focused on U.S.  History (76 Lessons) there are 15 lessons currently on world history, with all lessons are free with registration. Related to this project, Historical Thinking Matters also offers several lessons designed around primary sources.

From the U.K. there are several websites that provide convenient ‘bite size’ primary documents, focusing mainly on 20th century European and World History. Spartacus Educational provides ‘Wikipedia’ style entries on a huge variety of topics. What I have found very useful on this site though is that beneath each entry, there is (usually) a series of short primary documents including excerpts from speeches, letters, diaries, and official treaties. For example, below the entry on trench food in WWI are 10 soldiers’ first hand soldiers accounts of their rations and eating habits while living on the Western Front. Another website from the UK is John D Clare’s study page. This website is focused on revision for the GSCE exam; however, it does include suitable primary document excerpts, interspersed throughout. Finally, the University of Kent’s extensive political cartoon archive also provides a massive (overwhelming at times) collection for use, especially all of David Low’s fantastic cartoons on International relations in the Interwar and WWII periods. 

These are some of my favorites. Have I missed anything? Does anyone have any recommendations of sites to check out?