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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER–Revisiting Expanding Collections of Primary Source Sets

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Sep 1, 2017
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HOW has the model of the solar system has been challenged and changed over time through specific scientific processes? How might you explain historic models to your students? A middle school science teacher found her answer in Understanding the Cosmos: Changing Models of the Solar System and the Universe, a Library of Congress (LC) primary source set. She was especially drawn to Eclipse Model of the Sun (1846) ( She explained, “This is still a fairly new unit, and I’m open and willing to change it, and improve it as I continue teaching the unit.”

What Is a Primary Source Set?

Primary source sets are collections of multiple individual primary source artifacts surrounding a specific theme or topic. They are free, quality, “go-to” tools for teachers needing resources and ideas, as well as for media specialists collaborating with or identifying appropriate resources for teachers. The Cosmos set features 18 primary source images of historic models created by astronomers from different cultures and eras ranging from the 15th to the early 20th centuries. The drawings are available as individual PDF files and in a corresponding ebook version of the set

Expanding Sets

The Library of Congress has provided primary source sets for several years; ebook versions became available in 2014. The Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) sets are the newest of these diverse teaching tools. LC sets primarily feature selections from LC’s extensive digital resources; DPLA provides access to resources from diverse and extensive individual institutions. The growing number of primary source sets and expanding topic diversity makes it worthwhile to reexamine and compare these educationally sound and practical teaching tools. See the accompanying table starting on page 11 for a summary of basic features of the three collections of sets.

Topic Similarities, Differences, and Overlaps

LC Teachers Page and DPLA sets are especially rich in primary sources for teaching history and social studies. Standard and core curriculum topics such as explorations, the Depression, presidents, civil rights, and war are represented in each. Most have cross-curricular application. While topics overlap, each library features unique resources and may have a different emphasis. For example LC’s Immigration: Challenges for New Americans emphasis immigration through the early 20th century. DPLA’s Immigration and Americanization, 1890–1930 focuses on a narrower period. The sets may encourage students to investigate “historical” groups not covered in the sets or current immigrants.

Japanese American Internment (LC) includes photos by noted photographers Ansell Adams and Dorothea Lange taken at the Manzanar relocation center in California along with documents such as a naval dispatch document about the attack on Pearl Harbor; Japanese American Internment During World War II (DPLA) has photos from other camps, letters, and artifacts representing the larger picture, e.g., a photo of a Japanese store being closed due to relocation. The complementary sets offer more than 30 unique artifacts, ample for an introduction, learning, discussion, and further investigation and serves as a springboard for research on related topics.

The ebook Student Discovery version (available via an iBook but only to iOS users) provides another access point, but the same content as the PDF set. The LC Student Discovery also offers a different avenue to student access and interaction. Teacher guides for LC and DPLA sets add even more potential. There is enough to be helpful, but not too much to overwhelm.

And So Much More

DPLA and LC offer sets for teaching science, invention, literature, the arts and topics such as our changing society. Consider The Yellow Fever Epidemic, There Is No Cure for Polio, Jitterbugs, Swingers and Lindy Hoppers (DPLA) or Scientific Data: Observing, Recording, and Communicating Information, Baseball: Across a Divided Society, The Harlem Renaissance, or The Inventive Wright Brothers (LC).

LC’s literature sets support teaching traditional classics such as To Kill a Mockingbird and classic authors (e.g., Poe, Whitman); DPLA features 20 sets to support literary works ranging from contemporary works such as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried along with classics such as The Great Gatsby.

With 100 DPLA sets compared to 38 from LC, DPLA addresses more contemporary topics such as AIDS, the Native American movement, the rise of the suburbs, the California grape workers strike, and the Equal Rights Movement.

Implementing a Student or Teacher Tool

PDF sets from LC and DPLA are primarily teacher-directed tools, ideal for classroom engagement and discussion. They are usable and adaptable for any level and for any amount of time. Use as much or as little, a full set, a combination of sets, or just a single artifact to encourage observation, reflection, questioning, and investigation. Suggested activities and questions provide guidance for inquiry and higher-level thinking. Questions go well beyond just analyzing the sources, asking students to draw conclusions and comparisons and to think through relationships and significance. Some educators believe DPLA questions are more stimulating and higher-level than those from LC, but as with any teaching tool, the questions or activities can be modified as needed. A mix of formats in most topics—text, photos, maps, audio and video—offers differentiated learning opportunities as appropriate.

Offline Options

Print formats (e.g., documents, letters, photos, maps) predominate, making the sets well-suited to offline learning. For example, a teacher can print copies of the PDF for individual or group student work and engagement with a resource. Offline learning often invites closer focus and fewer potential distractions. Students can also interact with the document using annotation and mark-up strategies. Printed resources are also beneficial when technology fails or for students lacking online access at home.

Student Discovery Sets

Student Discovery ebooks are specifically designed for use by individual students. They provide an individual with personalized experience through easy-to-use tools that allow users to draw, annotate, and analyze, which is appealing to children and older students living in a technology-driven world who can easily navigate ebooks on their own. In a classroom equipped with iPads for students, these discovery sets would be a powerful tool. They can be used for whole group instruction provided an IOS device and projection system are available. Many students would love to engage with the resource, sharing their observations and reflections with the entire class. And the resources are well-suited for a “flipped classrooms” where students gain prior knowledge by using the tools on the ebook before they come to class. The Teachers Guide is accessible through the LC Teachers Page and not included in the student ebook.

Ebooks are free and downloadable from iTunes for iOS devices. The site also contains some free LC iBooks, such as Slave Narratives; A Folk History of Slavery in the United States From Interviews With Former Slaves and The Civil War: Parts 1 & 2, an audio book.

Be Prepared

The sets are an ideal collaboration tool for media/technology specialists who want to provide the perfect resource for busy teachers, or for those who just want something new and different. They invite collaboration and engagement. Although sets have been around a while, I have found that not many teachers or media specialists are aware of them. Back to school and fall are the ideal time for media specialists to explore and discover so you can dig into your “bag of tricks” when the time comes. Veterans Day (Veterans’ Stories: Struggles for Participation) and Thanksgiving (Thanksgiving) are just around the corner.


Prior New Media Center Columns on primary source sets

  • DPLA’s Primary Source Sets and Ben’s Guide, Refreshed! Internet @ Schools, January/February 2016

  • Making Learning Interactive, Internet @ Schools March/April 2015

  • Classroom Ready Materials on the Library of Congress Teachers’ Page, Sept/Oct 2013) Internet @ Schools

(All available

Thank you, Jessica Olson, River Falls, Wisconsin, Schools


Contact Mary Alice at


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