Using digitized primary source materials in the classroom
First Monday

Using digitized primary source materials in the classroom: A Colorado case study by Nena E. Bloom and Cynthia Stout

Using digitized primary source materials with K–12 students makes learning content more engaging and relevant, and helps students develop a wide range of skills. This paper highlights the use of primary source materials in Colorado classrooms and provides a brief overview of what educators’ needs are in order to use digitized primary source materials more efficiently and effectively with students.


Use of digitized primary source material in the classroom
Models for professional development
Meeting needs of educator–users of digital libraries
Promoting relevant resources





Primary source materials are the stuff of history; the photos, letters, documents, music scores and more from our past. Increasingly, primary source materials from the collections of cultural heritage institutions are being digitized and made available through online databases. K–12 educators and their students are the natural consumers of this content–rich material. Primary source materials offer students the opportunity to "do" history rather than merely learn it. History that is learned by doing is far more relevant and engaging to students than the myriad of seemingly unrelated facts typically presented in many of the textbooks used in schools throughout Colorado and the nation. Beyond their common content–related use, primary sources readily lend themselves to the development of critical thinking and research skills. They are logical resources to be used in the promotion of reading, writing and information literacy.

Though many rich collections of digitized primary source materials are now available through the World Wide Web, will educators use this material with students? Since 2002, the Collaborative Digitization Program (CDP) has worked with Colorado educators to increase the use of primary resources with their classes. Our experiences have shown that there are two major obstacles that inhibit their widespread use: lack of awareness of the availability of these resources, and lack of time to locate resources relevant to classroom curricula. These obstacles need to be overcome to meet the needs of current educator and student users and to increase this user group.


Use of digitized primary source material in the classroom

Colorado teachers and students are finding these primary source materials through a variety of sites; most notably in the Library of Congress’ American Memory Collection, at the National Archives and Records Administration, and through the CDP databases: Western Trails, Heritage Colorado, and Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collections. Heritage Colorado and Western Trails are search interfaces that allow the user to simultaneously search digital collections from cultural heritage institutions in Colorado and the West. Recently, Colorado classes have begun to use Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection, an online database with article–level keyword searching. In the near future educators across the West will begin to use digital audio with students, funded by a 2004 grant entitled "Sound Model," from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).

Digitized primary source materials are being used by Colorado educators to teach the content outlined in the Colorado Model Content Standards. Additionally, digitized primary source materials are invaluable for use in teaching the skills outlined in these standards. For example, History Standard 2 requires students to know how to use the processes and resources of historical inquiry. Photographs, such as the one shown in Figure 1, are used as a starting point for students to begin thinking about and exploring a particular historical topic or issue. Often students are asked to respond to basic questions about a photograph such as: "What Do You Observe?" "What Do You Think You Know?" and "What Do You Want to Find Out?" (Library of Congress).

Figure 1: Three young evacuees drop their baggage and relax to argue about whose bunk goes in which corner on arriving at their new quarters. Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society, F32,640
Figure 1: Three young evacuees drop their baggage and relax to argue about whose bunk goes in which corner on arriving at their new quarters.
Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society, F32,640.

As students analyze the photograph and attempt to answer these questions, typically other, deeper questions begin to emerge. In the process of answering these questions, students delve into primary and secondary resources to learn more about this photograph, taken at the Amache Relocation Center in Granada, Colorado. What their research will discover is that during this period of history, Japanese Americans were relocated from their west coast homes and interned in camps throughout the intermountain west for the duration of World War II. Additionally, students also may learn that this photo was taken by the War Relocation Authority and was most likely staged for propaganda purposes. That knowledge has the potential to take the curious student to other resources to find out the reasons why the pictures were staged and to locate non–staged photographs taken by others from that time period. This type of research may also cause a student to wonder if there have been other instances in our history where photographs that appear authentic in their composition, in actuality, were not.

Students are using online digitized primary source materials to do original research. In the past, these primary source materials were inaccessible to K–12 students who are restricted from or unable to visit or to use the resources of university libraries or public archives. Online availability of resources such as historic newspaper articles from over 70 Colorado newspaper titles from 1859–1923 available through Colorado’s Historic Newspaper Collection, are giving students access to resources that allow them to do primary source research.

In one Colorado classroom, students are studying the Sand Creek Massacre, by reading newspaper accounts of this tragic event from several newspapers over a period of time. They are comparing and contrasting how different papers reported the event and how opinions changed over time. The newspaper article in Figure 2 seems to fully support the massacre while the article shown in Figure 3, printed several months later during a federal investigation of the massacre, is much more critical of the actions of Colonel Chivington and his supporters. The opportunity for students to study history at this level is unprecedented, and suggests any number of exciting new assignments and activities to teachers.

Figure 2: Rocky Mountain News, 7 December 1864, Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society
Figure 2: Rocky Mountain News, 7 December 1864, Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society.


Figure 3: Daily Mining Journal, 24 February 1865, Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society
Figure 3: Daily Mining Journal, 24 February 1865, Courtesy of the Colorado Historical Society.

Photographs of any kind are powerful tools to help activate a student’s background knowledge on a particular topic or issue and spark an interest to find out more. Historic photos are being used in the classroom to promote literacy in reading and writing. To be literate writers, students need to write across the curriculum, not just in the English Language Arts. Photographs found in online digital collections provide a rich resource of content–based materials from a variety of disciplines, such as the arts, sciences, and social sciences that can be easily accessed and brought into the classroom. Using content–based material for writing prompts, educators can provide students opportunities to write in many of the content areas. In "Introduction to the Chicano Movement," a lesson created at a 2002 educator workshop, students use photos of the 1960s–based materials from a variety of disciplines, such as the arts, sciences, a1970s Chicano Movement in Denver (Figure 4), as writing prompts to write about this era from a variety of perspectives (Falcon, 2002).

Figure 4: Hispano youths in berets, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, X-21596
Figure 4: Hispano youths in berets, Denver Public Library Western History Collection, X-21596.

Research shows that students who lack the ability to create visual images when reading often experience comprehension difficulties (Hibbing and Rankin–Erickson, 2003). Providing an image such as a historical photograph, political cartoon or artifact to activate visual imagery of the text that is being read provides a means for the reader to overcome potential stumbling blocks presented by an unfamiliar reading. Images provide yet another means for helping students interact with text.

Another effective use of primary source documents in helping students gain literacy skills is as mentor texts. By analyzing what is powerful in the writing they read, students learn to apply these literary techniques or skills to their own writing. They begin to read like writers. Students reading an edited version of the Hay copy of the Gettysburg Address, Figure 5, note that even Abraham Lincoln had to edit, gaining an understanding that great writing is the result of multiple revisions. Seeing this can be a more effective lesson than an abstract verbal reminder from the teacher.

Figure 5: Abraham Lincoln. 'Gettysburg Address: Hay Copy'. November 1863. Available at Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (Washington, D.C.: American Memory Project, [2000-02]),, accessed March 29, 2005.
Figure 5: Abraham Lincoln. "Gettysburg Address: Hay Copy" November 1863. Available at Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress, Manuscript Division (Washington, D.C.: American Memory Project, [2000–02]),, accessed 29 March 2005.


Models for professional development

Since 2002, Collaborative Digitization Project (CDP) through an IMLS Leadership and Training Grant, has conducted numerous workshops to help teachers use digitized photographs, documents, maps and material culture in their classrooms. A variety of models were developed in an effort to meet the diverse needs of teachers throughout the state. The first training session held was a week–long workshop in Denver, Colorado, modeled after the Library of Congress American Memory Fellows Program. The range of participants in terms of grade level, subjects, experience, and comfort level with technology was broad. While the week was a success both in terms of teacher satisfaction and the objectives used to measure the effectiveness of the program, it became apparent that other models of delivery were necessary to reach teachers and classrooms throughout the state.

In addition to traditional face–to–face training methods, the IMLS "Training and Leadership Grant" allowed CDP to develop different models for professional development. Detailed information about the range of models used in CDP workshops and in services is available at Teaching with Colorado’s Heritage: A Manual for Program Development. Traditional face–to–face methods were compared with a distance learning model to determine if outcomes and teacher satisfaction were similar with a large distance learning component. Integration of an abbreviated workshop into an existing teacher training workshop held regularly by different programs throughout the state was tested to find out if there would be an increased awareness and knowledge of how to use digitized primary source materials with students.

Educators were surveyed before participation in workshops, immediately after the workshops were completed and six months to one year after the workshops were finished. In pre–workshop surveys, knowledge of available resources and confidence in teaching with these resources was low. After the workshops, knowledge and confidence in searching and teaching with primary source materials and integrating primary source materials into lessons improved dramatically. Six months to a year after the workshop, teacher knowledge and confidence was even higher, indicating that confidence levels rise as educators continue to work with and teach with primary source materials. Overall, distance learning participants, who resided in rural and metropolitan regions of the state, gained awareness and knowledge equally to face–to–face participants. Distance learning participants were slightly less satisfied with their experience, although rural teachers in Southwestern Colorado (300 miles from Denver) expressed equal satisfaction with the experience as the face–to–face participants. This suggests that distance learning is a viable training option to meet the needs of potential participants from rural as well as suburban and urban environments. All models, including the model that integrated an abbreviated workshop within existing teacher training workshops, increased awareness of available resources, suggesting that introducing materials in a short session is a viable option for increasing awareness.


Meeting needs of educator–users of digital libraries

Professional development recommendations
Providing support for educators through professional development workshops designed to promote the use of digital libraries is critical to meeting the needs of educator–users. Without training, teachers who lack awareness of and knowledge in how to use the digitized primary source materials will most likely not take advantage of these resources. The following recommendations for designing basic professional development programs to teach educators to use these resources are based on the experiences of the Collaborative Digitization Program:

  • Establish an Advisory Group: made up of a small group (five–seven) of teachers and school media specialists representing the target audience to give input and provide feedback on how the program should be designed.
  • Keep participation open to all content areas: Innovative educators across all content areas can use digitized primary source materials to enrich content a wide range of curricular areas. Rely on the creativity of the participants to make connections to the materials that derive from their expertise.
  • Make it practical: Focus on skills that educators can practice, take to their classes, and immediately use. These might include techniques for analyzing photographs, reading strategies to scaffold for historic documents or processes for initiating student research projects.
  • Include cultural heritage partners: Provide a networking opportunity between the cultural heritage institution and the educator. Educators do not always know what is available through their local cultural heritage institution and the cultural heritage institution is not always aware of what is going on in the classroom. Partnerships forged between these two institutions are powerful and benefit students in their learning.
  • Expand capacity: Use workshop participants/educators to work with others in their school buildings districts or other staff development settings to increase awareness of the multitude of digitized primary sources and how to search them efficiently and use them effectively. Teachers working with teachers are an effective method for not only raising awareness for others, but for solidifying the skills and knowledge of the instructor as well. Research presented in the Learning Pyramid from the National Training Laboratories demonstrates that the average retention rate of learning is highest when one teaches others (NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science).
  • Align lessons and activities developed by workshop participants to state and/or local content standards: Few if any school districts exist that do not require lessons aligned to standards. This alignment increases the likelihood that lessons developed using the resources of online repositories will be widely used.
  • Provide graduate or relicensure credit: Incentives such as continuing education or graduate credit for participation are particularly attractive in the current environment of No Child Left Behind legislation that requires teachers to obtain "highly qualified" status in the areas in which they teach.
  • Support a range of classroom technology: Providing teachers with a variety of methods for using these online resources that fit the technology available to them in their classrooms or schools is critical to insuring the use of digital collections and the lessons developed using these resources. Sessions or discussions might include ways to use the material off–line, within a one–computer classroom, how to help large classes search databases, or how to provide the resources without searching. A survey of participants prior to the workshop will allow instructors to address these issues.

When circumstances prohibit a comprehensive, more time–intensive workshop, an introductory session or short presentation at a conference or similar venue can be effective to increase awareness or raise interest in using digital resources. Focusing on one or two highlights can be an effective way for educators to learn about digital collections and to spark interest in further exploration.


Promoting relevant resources

Lack of time to find material relevant to their curriculum is frequently expressed as an obstacle for educators and students when searching large repositories of digitized materials. There are several ways that digital libraries can help educators find the materials that they need, which will motivate the educator–user to return to the site in the future.

Highlighting materials that can be tied into classroom curriculum, through an educator section of a Web site is one way for digital libraries to help educators quickly access the materials they need. District level curriculum coordinators or school librarians can provide information about what is being taught in the classroom and what materials are relevant to classroom needs.

Another way to help educators find relevant materials is to classify and provide access to digitized resources in a variety of ways. Resources classified and presented by time, geography, theme, or subject, in addition to keyword searches, help educators find relevant material quickly and easily. For example, in addition to searching Heritage Colorado, classes can browse pre–constructed searches on widely taught subjects like Colorado and Western History.

Figure 6: Heritage Colorado Interface for Browsing by Subject
Figure 6: Heritage Colorado interface for browsing by subject.

Classes can also follow "Western Trails" to access primary sources organized by theme. Each "trail" provides an overview that puts the collected documents in their historical context. The American Memory Timeline, from the Library of Congress Learning Page, presents sets of chronologically organized primary sources keyed to major eras in United States history. Each era contains an overview of the period and each document is preceded by a contextualization of the document and guiding questions. With initial successes finding the resources they need, educators will be motivated to return to the site again, frequently using advanced searching features in the future.

Model lessons are another way to demonstrate how collections of primary source materials can be used within particular content areas. These lessons, frequently written and piloted by workshop teachers in their own classrooms, model innovative ways that educators use digital collections and can provide inspiration for teachers interested in developing their own lessons using digitized collections for their classrooms. The Library of Congress American Memory Learning Page and CDP Educator Resources, among many others, provide model lessons in a variety of subject matter written by teachers, as well as other resources to support educator use of digitized collections.

Educators respond positively when introduced to digitized primary source materials. Many educators are excited to find high–quality materials, free of charge, previously unavailable to their students. They are enthusiastic about the opportunity to give their students the chance to "construct" their learning through use of primary resources. Digital libraries can provide opportunities for teachers to learn about and use digitized primary source materials, and students everywhere will be able to benefit from these rich resources of history. End of article


About the authors

Nena Bloom is the education coordinator for the Collaborative Digitization Program. Previously, Nena worked as a museum educator and science teacher.

Cynthia Stout is a Curriculum Content Specialist in Social Studies with Jefferson County Public Schools (Golden, Colorado). She has worked with the Collaborative Digitization Program and the Library of Congress’ American Memory Fellows Program to bring the power of digitized primary source collections to teachers and their students.



We would like to thank colleagues at CDP for making this all possible: Nancy Allen, Liz Bishoff, Jill Koelling and Richard Urban; Judith Graves from the Library of Congress; Our project collaborators, Colorado State Library and Colorado Historical Society; the Institute of Museum and Library Services for providing funding for this project; as well as the Colorado educators who have shared their time, experiences and enthusiasm: Eliza Hamrick, Donna Levene, Kurt Knierim, Mary Johnson, Jim Giese and many more!



Library of Congress, "Thinking about primary sources...," at, accessed 5 April 2005.

Jackie Falcon, "Introduction to the Chicano Movement," at, accessed 5 April 2005.

A. Hibbing and J.L. Rankin–Erickson, 2003. "A picture is worth a thousand words: Using visual images to improve comprehension for middle school readers," Reading Teacher, volume 56, 758–770.

NTL Institute for Applied Behavioral Science, 300 North Lee Street, Suite 300, Alexandria, Virginia 22314, 1–800–777–5227.

Editorial history

Paper received 5 April 2005; accepted 3 May 2005.HTML markup: Susan Bochenski and Edward J. Valauskas; Editor: Edward J. Valauskas.

Copyright ©2005, First Monday

Copyright ©2005, Nena E. Bloom and Cynthia Stout

Using digitized primary source materials in the classroom: A Colorado case study by Nena E. Bloom and Cynthia Stout
First Monday, Volume 10, Number 6 - 6 June 2005

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2019. ISSN 1396-0466.