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Programming with Library of Congress Digital Collections : Introduction

This guide is designed to help all types of libraries explore primary sources available from the Library of Congress online collection, and to connect with their communities through programming and educational opportunities.

How to Use This Guide

Among its 170+ million resources, the Library of Congress houses thousands of primary sources. Many of these have been digitized, making them accessible to users everywhere. This guide is organized around various topics covered within Library of Congress collections. The Library of Congress hosts over 500 collections of primary sources, so each section of the guide focuses on one collection that relates to the presented subject, with several ideas for how to use that collection in library programs. In an effort to make primary sources as accessible as possible, each section contains suggested programs and activities that are applicable to various audiences and for use in various types of libraries (public, academic, school, and special.) 

The programs presented are ideas that have been developed so that librarians can either use them as offered or tailor them according to the needs of the intended audience. Each page lists several related collections that can be used for similar programs or as a launch pad for new programming ideas. You can can visit the Library of Congress' Digital Collections web page to browse all of the available collections.

The last tab of this guide, Share Your Ideas!, is a place for users to share their ideas and discuss how primary sources can be used in programming in new and engaging ways. 

The Library of Congress' digitized collection of primary sources is voluminous. The LOC has over 15 million digitized items. So, how can you find what you are looking for?

You can start by conducting a keyword search on the Library of Congress homepage. You can then filter the results. (In most cases, there will be a lot!)

You can apply limiters. For example, you can limit your search by:

  • the original format of the item (if you are looking for a photo or a piece of sheet music, for example);
  • the date or date range of the item (if you are looking for a primary source from a particular time period); and/or
  • the location of where the item was created (if you want a resource from a particular location).

*When searching, it is important to think about your search terms and to try alternative words and phrases. For example, "gas stations" used to be called "filling stations," so you would want to search both terms to make sure you get more complete results.

The LOC also has primary source sets that can be great for library displays for special events and holidays. The primary source sets include a curated collection of primary sources about the topic and a teacher's guide with "Suggestions for Teachers" and "Additional Resources." So, if you know that you are hosting an event or teaching about Veterans, Baseball, or Halloween, for example, you can use primary sources from these curated collections. There are primary source sets that focus on individual states, too.

If you still can't find what you are looking for, the LOC website has an "Ask a Librarian" feature.

Throughout this guide, you will see references and activities that use Chronicling AmericaChronicling America is a joint project between the National Digital Newspaper Program, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Library of Congress. The ongoing project digitizes and makes available online hundreds of newspapers from around the United States and territories. Coverage spans newspapers from 1770-1963. In most cases, the entire newspaper has been digitized so that it includes photographs and advertisements from different time periods as well as the newspaper articles. The collection contains digitized newspapers from almost all 50 states and territories, so users might find local papers from their state or home town.  

Each of the subject tabs in this guide contains suggestions for how to incorporate Chronicling America into your library programming and classes. 

Uses for Chronicling America include: 

  • Pricing: It can be fun to compare the prices of items to what they would cost today! It is also interesting to see what items were sold and what was important to people during a particular time period.
  • News spread: Compare differences between local and national reporting on events.
  • On this day: Patrons can find a newspaper from the day they were born or from the day their parents or grandparents were born.      

Page of Connecticut Western News newspaper in black and white shows an article about libraries.  At the top of the page, a photograph shows children lining up to in front of a "book wagon."           

Connecticut Western News, March 4, 1920    

Fowlers Food Store Grocery Ad March 27, 1963       

The Chapel Hill Weekly, (Chapel Hill, NC), March 27, 1963

In using primary sources, it is important to remember that these materials are first-hand accounts from a particular time in history, so they, generally, tell one side of a story and can be biased. 

It is important to think about:

  • Who is not represented? 
  • Who is othered? 
  • What is not represented? 
  • What is missing?

Can you find additional primary sources to show what and who is missing?


For more information on representation in primary sources, read the article "Using Photographs to Create Culturally Relevant Classrooms" from the National Council for the Social Studies.

Burgard, K.L.B., O'Quinn, C., et al. (2021). Using photographs to create culturally relevant classrooms: People of San Antonio, Texas, in the 1930s. Social Studies and the Young Learner. Retrieved June 19, 2023 from

Analyzing Primary Sources

Primary sources tell stories. To get the most from these stories, it is important to do a close reading of them. (Even a photograph can be "read" and analyzed.) Primary sources can be identified and analyzed by observing, reflecting, and questioning. As you are looking at a primary source or sharing it with patrons, ask:

  • What do you see?  (This is what you actually see within the 4 corners of the document.)
  • What does this make you think?  (These are reflections that can pull on prior knowledge.)
  • What do you wonder?  (Closely analyzing a primary source can lead to additional questions to be researched.)

The Library of Congress Primary Source Analysis Tool provides a guide that can be used with primary sources to analyze them, helping to frame the user's perception of historic materials and, as such, historic events and figures. The LOC tool can be used with patrons as a starting point for discussions and programming around primary sources. 

Primary Source Analysis Tool document shows three columns labeled "Observe," "Reflect," and "Question."  There are lines under each of these that can be filled in.  The Library of Congress logo is at the bottom.

The LOC has analysis tools and guides for analyzing different types of primary sources.  (There is one for maps, one for charts and graphs, one for oral histories, etc.) Visit the LOC's Analysis Tools website for information on working with different types of primary sources.  

Teaching with Primary Sources Program

Logo for the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources Program

Through its Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program, the Library of Congress offers classroom materials and professional development to help teachers and librarians effectively use primary sources from the Library's vast digital collections in their teaching and programming. Since 2006, the Library of Congress has awarded Teaching with Primary Sources grants through its TPS Partner Program, to build a nationwide network of organizations that deliver educational programming and create teaching materials and tools based on the Library’s digitized primary sources and other online resources. Each year, members of this network, called the TPS Consortium, support tens of thousands of learners to build knowledge, engagement, and critical thinking skills with items from the Library’s collections.

The American Library Association received funding from the TPS Partner Program to develop this resource guide to offer primary source resources to library workers and inspire them to use LOC digital collections for educational/programming needs. 

What is a Primary Source?


The Library of Congress in 1900.

image: The Library of Congress, c. 1900 by William Henry Jackson

Primary sources are the "raw materials" of history. They are original documents, objects, and images created at the time being studied. They are history. Another way to define primary sources is by contrasting them with secondary sources which are accounts or interpretations created at a later date by someone who did not have first-hand experience. Primary sources are not just text-based documents or journal entries, but, as you will see as you explore this guide, primary sources are also photographs, videos and sound recordings, maps, newspapers, oral histories, sheet music, and 3D artifacts. The Library of Congress makes primary sources accessible to patrons of all ages. 

Primary sources can be used to put a historical event or person in context, bringing history to life. They are, of course, also used by researchers and historians to write books and to make films.

Primary sources help to build critical thinking skills, visual and cultural literacy, and information literacy skills. They are part of many state standards for learners as young as kindergarten, but, most important, they are engaging!

There is a primary source for everything! 

Types of Primary Sources

Drawing shows men, possibly legislators, climbing a ladder to board a large vehicle labeled

Art and Photography

Visual Art and Photography can be overlooked as primary sources given the popular nature of some of the sources. However, these highly visual sources offer rich context clues about politics, personal beliefs, and artistic movements in any given time period. They can also be used to show the advancement in technology and the development of international artistic styles.

These primary sources can be of a personal nature as well. Personal or family images can provide understanding of daily life and family relationships. 

These visual sources can include:

  • Photographs
  • Cartoons
  • Paintings
  • Drawings

Editorial Cartoon: Votes for Women Bandwagon was drawn by artist Clifford Kennedy Berryman. It was published in the January 10, 1918 edition of The Washington Star. What are some questions that can be developed by analyzing the image? 

  • Why was the slogan "Votes for Women" described and depicted as a Bandwagon?
  • Who are the people in the drawing supposed to represent?
  • What do you think the drawing is trying to convey? 
  • Can any conclusions be developed based on the date of the drawing compared to the passage of the Suffrage Bill in 1919?

Souvenir map of 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, the Chicago World's Fair.


Maps are a valuable way to explore what existed in a space at a specific point in time, as well as how various landmarks were viewed. 

This map of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago was meant to be a souvenir to commemorate the event. Several questions can be posed in relation to this map, such as:

  • What functions can this map fulfill?
  • Why would a map be a desirable souvenir? 
  • What types of pavilions and landmarks are depicted? What does that say about the event?
  • How does this map of Jackson Park compare to the current map? What has changed and what has remained the same? 

Correspondence between Susan B. Anthony to Frederick Douglass dated June 1893, has letterhead from the National-American Woman Suffrage Association

Personal Papers

"Personal documents" can include many different types of primary sources, but they are most commonly diaries, letters, financial records, and household accounts. With modern technology, this type of primary source is expanding to include emails, social media feeds and posts, and text messages. 

Personal documents are rich sources and provide students, historians, and researchers an idea of what everyday life was like for individuals during a certain time period. 

  • What are some challenges that can come from studying personal correspondence?  

Personal Document: Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Frederick Douglass that begins with "My Dear Friend" and is dated June 25, 1893. In the letter, Anthony mentions an event taking place in August, most likely the Chicago World's Fair, and also Elizabeth Cady Stanton.


Text of law that established the position of Librarian of Congress January 26, 1802

Public and Official Documents

Public and Official Records are any records held by local, state, or federal entities that are usually public in nature. Governments are and always have been in the business of keeping a myriad of records to define their populations, create policies and procedures, and otherwise maintain social order.  

Types of public documents include:

  • Census records 
  • Court records 
  • Committee Records
  • Wills  
  • Tax records 
  • Laws 
  • Treaties  
  • Civil Codes 
  • Legislative hearings 

Depending on the time period and location, these types of historic documents might be church records rather than “government" documents.  

So, when you are searching for public records, think about the time period and what governing body might have been collecting public information.  

  • Why were certain laws created?
  • What was the need in society?
  • Do these laws exist in their same form today?
  • What can be learned from someone's will or tax records? 
  • What can legislative hearings or committee meeting records tell us? 

Government Document: This statute requires  "...a librarian to be appointed by the President of the United States..." Statute 1, Chapter II, Sec. 3, (January 26, 1802), Acts of the Seventh Congress of the United States, Statutes at Large. 


Life mask of Abraham Lincoln.

Artifacts and Relics

Individuals leave behind a lot of stuff, including material possessions and just general debris. Analyzing what humans produced, used, consumed, and discarded provides insight into most of humankind, especially cultures or communities that did not produce or maintain personal documents or governmental records. 

Primary source artifacts and relics include:  

  • Furniture 
  • Works of art 
  • Tools  
  • Machinery  
  • Clothing and textiles 
  • Cooking tools and other household items  
  • Music

Artifacts and relics let us examine physical objects, craftsmanship or technology from the past. We can also use them to study the cultural or social history of a society. 

  • What can be learned from Lincoln's Life mask?  You could analyze the materials used or the artist's technique. Observers can learn about Lincoln's face or compare it to other Lincoln life masks to observe physical changes in his appearance. 
  • What could the evolution of style and fashion tell about society and changing societal views?
  • How can machinery be used to learn about the evolution or society and technology? ​​​​​​​

Artifact: Life Mask of Abraham Lincoln is from The Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana. It was created in February 1865 by artist Clark Mills. There are a total of nine images in the this particular series. 


Black and White sketch of perspective rendering and plan of first and second story of the Library of Congress

Buildings and Architecture

We often underestimate what buildings and their architectural plans can tell us about a period in time, but they are rich sources for information about artistic styles, architectural education, and political manifestations. 

These types of primary sources can be the buildings themselves and architectural drawings or surveys of the location or layout of the structure. Partnered with city plans, these sources can offer insight into city planning, population disbursement, and urban development.

  • What purpose did a particular building serve?
  • Why would there have been a need for a particular type of building?
  • Does the plan serve the function of the building?
  • Does the building exist in its same form today?

Architectural Drawing: This architectural rendering of the proposed Library of Congress Building (c.1881-1885), shows the outside edifice and floor plans of the first and second stories. It was created by architects John L. Smithmeyer and Paul J. Pelz of the firm, Smithmeyer and Pelz. It is part of the Architecture, Design & Engineering Drawings digital collection. The collection contains multiple depictions of the Library of Congress, other Washington, D.C. buildings, and structures around the United States. 


Image of black woman with long black hair. A

Oral History, Music, and Sound/Film Recordings

Primary sources of an auditory or visual nature offer a unique set of historical challenges because they come in a variety of formats. Oral history sources can be written or recorded; music may or may not be available in a recording but as a musical score; and film and sound recordings can come in any number of technological formats. Primary sources of an auditory or visual nature can be rich with unexpected historical context.

  • What kinds of information and insights can be learned from someone's personal stories and memories?
  • Does the personal nature of oral histories help to build understanding and empathy?

Oral History Interview: This oral history interview with Ruby Nell Sales was conducted by Joseph Mosnier in Atlanta Georgia on April 25, 2011. In the interview Ruby Sales discusses her childhood and participation in the Civil Rights Movement. It is part of the Library of Congress's Civil Rights History Project

The Library of Congress also has a Veterans History Project that includes firsthand recollections from military veterans who served in World War I through more recent conflicts and peacekeeping missions.


Authors of This Guide

Image of Soline Holmes


Soline Holmes

Soline Holmes is a librarian and the Information Services Department chair at Academy of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is the Secretary (and a former Member-at-Large) for ALA's Graphic Novels and Comics Roundtable. She is also a member of ALSC's Children and Libraries Editorial Advisory Committee, serves on the Louisiana Young Readers' Choice Award committees for K-2nd grade and 3rd-5th grade, and was Chair of the New Orleans Information Literacy Collective. She has given presentations on graphic novels; primary sources; nature and libraries; Mother Goose and STEM; and Global Education at local and national conferences. Soline co-authored an article about graphic novels as informational texts for Children and Libraries and is co-authoring a chapter for ALA's forthcoming book, Mental Health and Children's Literature: Evaluating, Curating, and Sharing Books with Children. She is the proud recipient of a 2019 Judith F. Krug Banned Books Week grant for her school library and was honored to participate in ALSC's 2022 Bill Morris seminar. She is a member of the second cohort for Online Ready: Designing Culturally Competent and Impactful K-12 Online Learning sponsored by the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Soline is a Teaching with Primary Sources Network Mentor for the Library of Congress and has given presentations on using primary sources in library programming and classrooms and on using primary sources to bring picture books and historical fiction novels to life. She attended the Library of Congress' 2019 Teaching with Primary Sources Summer Onsite Workshop.

Headshot Sarah Northam


Sarah H. Northam

Sarah H. Northam is the Director of Research & Instruction at Velma K. Waters Library on the campus of Texas A&M University-Commerce. With over 22 years’ experience in higher education and 15 years’ experience in libraries, she is a passionate advocate for learning and information access. Sarah assists faculty and students with research, information literacy, copyright and the use and implementation of OER on campus. She has presented on Open Educational Resources (OER), Digital History and Primary Sources, Information Literacy, and Assessment.

Sarah holds an MSLS from the University of North Texas, a M.Ed. in Educational Technology and an MS in History from Texas A&M University – Commerce. She is a 2022-2023 SPARC OER Lead Fellow, 2021 graduate of the Open Education Network’s OER Librarianship certificate program and completed CopyrightX administered by Harvard Law School and the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society in 2022.

Image of Rebecca Stanwick


Rebecca Stanwick

Rebecca is an Assistant Teaching Professor and Reference and Instruction Librarian at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio. She is also the subject liaison for the History Department where she teaches classes on research methods and historiography. She received her master’s in Library Science from Indiana University – Bloomington and is currently working on her PhD in History of Education at the University of Toledo where her dissertation focuses on the informal education of women during the American Revolution and Early National period through the creation of feminist communities and knowledge sharing. She has published in Learning to Teach and the Palgrave Handbook of Educational Thinkers (2022). She has also presented on intersectional feminist theory as direct action in library policy, and teaching with primary sources through a feminist lens.

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content and Fair Use

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content
Some of the materials presented in this guide may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved by the Library of Congress and presented here for their historical significance. 

Fair Use

Digitized primary sources in the Library's collection each include a "Rights and Access" or "Rights Advisory" statement within the catalog information.  These can help users determine whether the item is in the public domain or whether there are copyright restrictions.  For more information about the Library of Congress' policy on Copyrights and Primary Sources visit the website.