Popular Public History

Through docsteach.org, the National Archives fills an important role needed by many teachers, tutors, and self-learners who want to access historical documents without investing too much of their own time searching physical or digital archives. The Docs Teach page provides a great amount of primary sources related to America’s recent past that are both central to U.S. primary and secondary school curriculums and accessible enough to be taught to students of varying ages and educational backgrounds. The site includes hundreds of digitized primary sources about U.S. history, including  letters, photographs, speeches, posters, maps, and videos. In addition to these many documents, additional resources are provided that contextualize the sources and place them within thematic groupings. Within these collections the documents are presented as possible materials for lesson plans with suggestions for classroom activities and explanations of the relevant skills targeted by each.

By offering primary source documents along with short historical contexts and activity ideas, the National Archives essentially repackages documents published on Docs Teach as teaching materials. Therefore, the major audience of the website is teachers and other educational workers. One can see the site clearly catering to this group as it provides teachers with adequate tools and material to include within their own lessons and to meet national standards.

However, unlike many other sites that promise lesson plans and historical evidence for educational purposes, Docs Teach is entirely open to any browser of the site. This expands the potential audience of the historical material to invite use by students and a general interested public. I have personally often relied on the site because I can easily locate documents for college-level discussion sections without needing to create an account or pay a fee for accessing the material. Furthermore, unlike other similar websites the information is fairly easy to understand without deep knowledge about educational curriculum in the United States.

Across educational and more general audiences Docs Teach provides multiple perspectives and mediums to explore related to some of the most studied parts of United States History. For example, exploring the Post-War U.S. category brings one to a series of activities including “Analyzing a Letter to Congress About Bloody Sunday”, “Examining Where Rosa Parks Sat”, and “We Shall Overcome: March on Washington”. In these activities students can:


Study the language of a letter from Selma,





Study a seating map from a Montgomery Bus,




And zoom in and out of a photograph of a young girl on a Civil Rights march to consider her perspective.




The documents themselves include descriptions, transcriptions, zoom features, search features, and download options that increase their usability. Additional resources like dozens of downloadable primary source reading guidelines  for different types of documents and iPad app further make the material accessible to a range of educational levels and learning settings. By including an easy-to-use and well-organized interface designed minimally with short texts, Docs Teach demonstrates a strong design that effectively serves it predominantly educational audience as well as a range of interested publics.


2 thoughts on “Popular Public History”

  1. Docs Teach is a wonderful website that can be useful to anybody interested in history. You pointed out a lot of the benefits of the website and I like your use of screenshots. I will definitely be using this website in the future.

  2. I liked this website a lot, and I’d like to try to attempt something similar with my digital archive project. I think there might be interesting things I could do to take this idea a step further and do more to contextualize the primary source documents. Mostly, I’m interested in providing information that assists in the close reading of the document in question. This is where I find students need the most help: Access is just the first step, but the public also needs help with interpretation. And rather than interpreting these documents for them, I like the idea of providing the public with the tools they need to be able to interpret the material for themselves.

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