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THE NEW MEDIA CENTER: Resources for the New Media Specialist--DPLA’s Primary Source Sets and Ben’s Guide, Refreshed!

By Mary Alice Anderson - Posted Jan 1, 2016
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A scary dream jolted me awake the other night. I was frantically trying to reassemble a scattered collection of CD-ROMs, computers, and monitors for a student research activity. Cables were tangled, drives were not working, and teachers were hoping everything would be ready for the students. Perhaps the students were about to use a standalone CD-ROM database.That scary dream was a reminder of jobs that are no longer necessary. It’s easy to forget what it was like without convenient online digital information access. The recently released Primary Source Sets from the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) are a new example of valuable resources that make access and teaching much easier.


DPLA is a relatively new aggregated collection of digital resources in varied formats from more than 1,600 contributing institutions, including libraries, archives, museums, and entities such as public radio stations. The portal’s basic search box offers easy access to more than 11 million items.  As with other collections of this type, searches can be refined  by subject, place, format, date, or contributing institution.  Special online exhibits offer landing page access to primary sources on popular topics.  A unique bookshelf toolbar provides  an easy way to search DPLA’s books, serials, and journals. Select the spine of the book to see icons of individual resources in the book or a table of contents.

There is much to explore in DPLA. I was surprised by how much I found with a simple search for "Winona Minnesota," my hometown. Photos, text, and multimedia sources ranging from the 1800s to 2015, including many I had not previously seen, captured my attention. DPLA was launched in 2013. The new Primary Source Sets increase its value as a K–12 resource.  Media specialists will want to learn about and incorporate them in instruction and collaboration.

Media specialists familiar with the Library of Congress’ World Digital Library (WDL) portal will see many similarities between WDL and DPLA. Both provide access to millions of resources from diverse contributing institutions and have similar search options. State  memory collections and digital libraries also offer one-stop access to digital artifacts from multiple institutions and also contribute to DPLA.


The Primary Source Sets were released in October 2015.  There are currently 30 sets, which were designed by educators and an education advisory panel to help teach content, facilitate inquiry, and support research in overlapping curriculum topics related to American history, literature, and culture. One educator explained, “DPLA is like a free thrift shop for humanities nerds.”

The Primary Source Sets’ landing page has a clean, uncluttered, and fresh look. An easily identifiable pictorial icon for each set invites a quick browse through the available titles.  Each set includes 15–20 resources represented by an icon, a teaching guide, and additional resources for research.  Set topics include the Panama Canal, Chinese immigration, the atomic bomb, A Raisin in the SunLittle Women, and  the postwar rise of the suburbs.

All Primary Source Sets have the same layout and features. As an example, let’s look at one set, The Impact of Television on News Media. Artifacts include photos, text, and video and audio recordings. A brief black-and-white video clip of President John F. Kennedy urging the press to use discretion when covering news events intrigued me. In an audio interview, journalist David Halberstam explains the increasing power of television network news. Photos depict early television personalities and televisions; a text chapter addresses the impact of television on news. These resources all invite close reading, viewing, and listening while also offering multiple approaches to learning at different levels. Citation information and a link to the DPLA bibliographic record provide information about the copyright and usage, the contributing institution, and subject heading links for finding more resources within DPLA. The set teaching guide includes discussion questions, classroom activities, and primary source analysis suggestions. There are also links to Document Analysis Worksheets from the National Archives and Using Primary Sources materials from the Library of Congress.

Share and Save To are unique features that are offered on the bibliographic page and are available throughout DPLA as well as within the sets. Users can share an individual resource via social media or save it to a personal virtual collection . Using the Save feature requires  signing in with an email address DPLA plans to release additional Primary Source Sets this spring. A future DPLA goal is allowing users to generate their own sets and create sets on the site. There are also plans to expand the content to include more cultural heritage items, ebooks, newspapers, and science data sets.


As a longtime user of the Library of Congress’ Teachers Page Primary Source Sets, it is natural for me compare them to DPLA’s. There are many similarities. The sets share the same general approach to providing convenient access to curriculum-related materials; both provide further details about each artifact, teaching materials, and analysis tools and also show standards alignment. Each collection of sets offers many unique topics, and there are also several similar or overlapping topics. 

Let’s take a brief look at two sets about the Harlem Renaissance.  Each contains unique artifacts. The  Library of Congress’  The Harlem Renaissance includes 21 artifacts in diverse print and multimedia formats representing diverse art forms and the period in general. There is also a Student Discovery ebook version of the set. DPLA’s Visual Art During the Harlem Renaissance has a specific focus and features 13 artifacts of text, photos, and drawings. Combined, the two sets offer a wide choice of varied, interesting, and meaningful resources.  Considering the combined current total of nearly 70 sets from DPLA and the Library of Congress, we have an exciting and expanding wealth of complementary materials a click away.


Ben’s Guide to the U.S. Government is one of my all-time favorite resources for younger learners. Its user-friendly and multilevel approach to providing students with basic information about the U.S. government and U.S. history makes it a core resource for school library media centers serving students of all ages. The Government Publishing Office (GPO) released an updated version in 2015. It has the same inviting look but with new and enhanced content and a fresh, colorful appearance. It is mobile device-friendly.

Ben’s Guide delivers core information at three levels: Apprentice (ages 4–8), Journeyperson (ages 9–13), and Master (ages 14–older). The three branches of U.S. government, the election process, symbols and songs, and significant historical documents are among the topics featured. Some topics are covered at all levels; some are not. As an example, the Election Process covers just the basics for ages 4–8. The text explains who can vote, why we vote, and where we vote. At the Journeyperson level, students can read additional information about voting rights amendments and access historical documents on the National Archives site. The Master level adds information about primary elections; electing the president, the vice president, senators, and representatives; and the Electoral College.

Links to significant related primary source documents in the Library of Congress or National Archives are included with many topics. Other primary source materials such as those accessible through the DPLA and Library of Congress sets on the same topics could be used to further enhance topics in Ben’s Guide. As an example, DLPA’s Women’s Suffrage: Campaign for the Nineteenth Amendment could be paired with Ben’s resources about voting rights. Printable word searches; crossword puzzles at all three levels; and Branch-o-Mania, a game about the government, is also part of Ben’s Guide.

Ben Franklin himself is also featured in his guide, with information about his diverse contributions. The resource also informs learners about the Federal Depository Library Program and the Federal Digital System, which provides free electronic access to federal government publications such as the Congressional Record and the Federal Register.

The GPO partnered with the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), a division of the American Library Association (ALA), to prepare the new site. Lesson plans correlated with Standards for the 21st-Century Learner, AASL/Common Core State Standards Crosswalk are included with some topics. The multilevel approach and content make this a useful resource for elementary and middle school students, special needs students, ESL students, or even adult GED or English language-learning students.

It is advantageous for media specialists to be comfortable with the updated Ben’s Guide, the all-new DPLA Primary Source Sets, and the established Library of Congress Primary Source Sets. Knowing what resources are available and how they fit with curriculum and student needs have an impact on student learning and their role. Links to Ben’s Guide, along with links to DPLA and Library of Congress Primary Source Sets, belong on all school media center information portals.


Anderson, Mary Alice, The World Digital Library: Global Resources just a Click Away, Internet@Schools, Mar/Apr 2013

Anderson, Mary Alice, Classroom-Ready Materials on the Library of Congress Teachers Page, Internet@Schools, Sept/Oct 2013.

Digital Public Library of America, http://DP.LA

Digital Public Library Primary Source Sets

Digital Public Library of America, Using DPLA for Teaching and Learning. Webinar, November 3, 2015.

Library of Congress Teachers Page, Primary Source Sets

Library of Congress, “State Digital Resources: Memory Projects, Online Encyclopedias, and Historical & Cultural Materials Collections”

U.S. Government Printing Office, Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government,


Contact Mary Alice at

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