Most materials are in the public domain if they were produced before 1923. I see this as roughly equivalent to everything that happened in the world up to and including World War I! If you’re looking for newspaper articles in Chronicling America, for example, you will note that coverage ends in 1922. 

Primary sources produced by the federal government are normally in the public domain both before and after the magic copyright date of 1923. That explains why we as teachers can use the fabulous oral history interviews of former slaves collected between 1936 and 1938 by workers from the Federal Writers’ Project.

Best websites to find primary source documents and historical content in the public domain:
  • The Commons / Flickr : The Commons is a Flickr project that shares public domain photographs and images from the world’s public photography archives
  • Library of Congress : The LOC is a vast collection in a variety of formats – posters, photographs, video, audio, maps and more. You can search by collections – for example prints and photographs. Or search by a variety of themes or topics. 
  • US National Archives Docs Teach – Choose from Thousands of primary sources for use in classroom activities. Refine search by historical era of document type.
  • World Digital Library : A Library of Congress project the provides historical content from nearly 200 countries between 8000 BCE and 2000 
  • PICRYL – The World’s Largest Public Domain Source and the largest search engine for public domain images, documents, music, and videos.
  • NYPL Digital Collection : Explore nearly a million items digitized from The New York Public Library’s collections
Here’s how to search any website (including those above using a “search operator.” Example: site:loc.gov

Image source: Main reading room at the Library of Congress
by Carol M. Highsmith

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