Digital Public Library of America: Using Free Primary Source Sets to Enhance Student Learning


By Kerry Dunne and Samantha Gibson

In July of 2015, the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), a consortium of university, public, and private libraries, archives, museums, and cultural organizations from across the United States, embarked on a year-long endeavor to make its vast digital collections of primary sources accessible and user friendly to teachers and students. This initiative, funded by the Whiting Foundation, assembled an Educational Advisory Committee (EAC) comprising 10 English, history, and library educators from around the country.


DPLA staff and members of the EAC worked in cooperation to create 100 Primary Source Sets that are available for free on the DPLA website. Each set contains 10 to 15 high-resolution primary sources on a particular topic, accompanied by questions designed to inspire inquiry-based analysis and critical discussion as well as suggested extension activities. The set topics are drawn from U.S. history, world history, and American literature and are designed to closely align with content taught in standard courses at the middle school, high school, and university levels. Some sets focus on “greatest hits” units that are part of the standard curriculum for virtually every history student, such as exploration of the Americas, The War of 1812, The Great Migration, and women’s suffrage. Other sets seek to add visual interest and historical context to works of literature commonly taught in U.S. schools and universities, including The Grapes of Wrath, The Things They Carried, and Beloved. In other cases, set topics were selected to encourage teachers to delve into engaging and diverse content that is too often undertaught, such as Puerto Rican migration to the United States, the history of food stamps, and mineral mining in the Mojave Desert. 

Primary Source Sets from Digital Public Library of America
Primary source sets can be found on topics ranging from the Polio virus to the poetry of Maya Angelou.

In all cases, DPLA’s Primary Source Sets align with Common Core literacy standards, and they introduce students to authentic work conducted by historians and researchers. Using the Teaching Guides that accompany each set, teachers are prompted to ask students to compare points of view from multiple sources, glean information from sources in a variety of formats— including photographs, video footage, maps, charts, journal entries, and legislation—and use evidence to justify a position or argument. Additionally, the sets can serve as preselected sources for student research. An introduction at the beginning of each set provides background information on a topic, and the sets serve as a carefully curated selection of resources, often preferable to broad voluminous search engine results if directing students to work independently to research a topic.

DPLA seeks to spread the word to educators about these free, useful primary source sets. With the completion of the foundational 100 sets, DPLA is eager to continue to work to connect instructors to these resources, both in person at education conferences and workshops and online. In addition to finding the sets on the DPLA website, educators can discover, save, share, and remix the sets alongside their favorite educational resources at PBS Learning Media, OER Commons, and Amazon Inspire. DPLA’s education staff also hopes to offer professional development workshops to introduce DPLA and the Primary Source Sets to educators across the country.

As the school year begins, and as best pedagogy for history and English language arts teachers as well as librarians increasingly emphasizes primary source analysis and digital resource integration, the DPLA Primary Source Sets can prove to be an invaluable free resource to educators looking to add depth to their curriculum. We encourage educators to share this resource with the teachers and librarians in their communities!

If you are interested in learning more, DPLA’s education e-mail list is the best way to stay in the loop about new resources and opportunities.

Kerry Dunne is a high school history teacher and the grades 6–12 social studies department head for Weston Public Schools. She is also a lecturer in the education department at Brandeis University and the vice president of the Massachusetts Council for the Social Studies. Follow her on Twitter @dunneteach.  

Samantha Gibson is the engagement and use coordinator at Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), where she works to connect diverse public audiences with DPLA resources through social media, outreach initiatives, and the development of educational programming. Follow her on Twitter @samanthadg24