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Jen Hoyer
April 10, 2018

Brooklyn Connections is the education outreach program in the Brooklyn Collection. It focuses on cultivating 21st Century learning skills in students and supporting teachers on the incorporation of archives materials into curricula. This blog post is part of a series from the Brooklyn Connections team, sharing skills and ideas for using archives primary source material in the classroom.

We all spend more time online than we can probably add up (or would like to admit?!), but are we experts at finding primary sources online? Moreover, how do we teach our students to become pros at digging this kind of content out of the vast realm of the internet?

The big question is: How can the internet help us find primary sources for our research?

Get Ready

If you’re planning to teach your students about finding primary sources online, take a moment first to think about what subject they’ll be researching, and where they could find content about that topic:

  • Do you have a local museum or historical society with online digital collections?
  • Do your students have public library cards, and do these give them access to any databases with primary and secondary sources that would be relevant to their research?

When helping students with online research skills, it’s important to differentiate – for yourself and for your students – whether you’d like to build skills for navigating specific online digital collections and databases (like the Brooklyn Collection or the Brooklyn Daily Eagle through Brooklyn Newsstand), or if you will focus on finding primary sources through Google.

And, if you're looking to refresh your and your students' perspectives on what a primary source is, check out our blog post on What's a Primary Source?

Get Started

A lesson on internet research could start with a Do Now: ask your students to answer the question, “If your friend needs to do research online for a project, where would you tell them to start?” Sharing responses can give you a sense of students’ online behavior when doing research.

Students may need some help at this point to clarify the difference between a browser – the program we use to navigate to any website on the internet (like Firefox, Chrome, or Internet Explorer) – and a search engine – which is a website specifically for searching (like Yahoo, Google, or Bing).

Dig In

Explain that we'll be looking for primary source material online, and introduce the concept of making a Pre-Research Game Plan. You can download our version of this here. We create our game plan because, before we sit down at a computer, it’s important to map out what we’re looking for so that our research can be most effective.

Work through the Pre-Research Game Plan with your students:

1. List your topic

2. What questions do you have about your topic?
Invite students to come up with at least three questions about the topic. While all students in the class may have the same research topic, everyone has different interests. This is a great opportunity to encourage students to ask questions about the topic that align with their own interests.

For example, when studying the history of immigration to Brooklyn, one student may be interested in the food immigrants ate, while another might be more interested in the types of jobs women found after immigrating.

3. Based on those questions, what keywords can you use for searching?
While students may be accustomed to searching Google by typing their question, most databases will not give us results if we enter questions. Instead, we need to use keywords.

A keyword is like a vocabulary word; our keywords are usually the important nouns that make up our questions. If I decided that “What jobs did women immigrants work in Brooklyn?” was one of my questions, keywords could be: job, women, immigrant, and Brooklyn. Invite students to look at their questions and write down dates, places, names, and other topic words to use as keywords.

4. List your results:
This is where we finally boot up our computers! Students should use their keywords to search for material online, by entering keywords instead of questions into search boxes.

There are several ways this section of the lesson can be structured:

  • Students may work independently or in pairs.
  • In classrooms with limited technology, this can be a class exercise where students suggest keywords and the teacher demonstrates on a screen at the front of the class.
  • You may decide to instruct your students to start by using their keywords on a specific database or website that contains primary sources – such as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle ( or the Brooklyn Collection’s Historic Photos ( Students could then list the best results they found.
  • Depending on time available, you may wish to ask students to search multiple databases and compare the results they find by using the same keywords.
  • Alternatively or additionally, you could ask students to search Google using their keywords and identify websites which answer their questions. Explain that they will need to look at their list of results on Google, navigate to websites to check for relevant information, and then write down the URL of each website. Ask students to evaluate whether the websites they located contain primary sources.


Following the work session, ask students to reflect:

  • Which keywords worked well?
  • Was it easy or difficult to find primary sources online?
  • Are there keywords you would add to your search strategy?
  • Which questions were you able to answer?
  • What new questions do you have?

If students used multiple databases and search engines, invite students to give feedback on the databases or search engines they used, and ask which platform gave them the most relevant primary sources for their topic. Invite opinions on why some databases or search engines might be more useful for researching some topics and not others.


For struggling students, allow more time for discussion and provide guided practice when assessing internet resources.

For advanced students, ask them to search multiple databases as well as Google, and ask them to provide an explanation on why they have selected each website or source document as relevant to their topic.

Outcomes and Assessment

The success of this lesson should be gauged on students’ ability to identify keywords relevant to their topic, to select the most important keywords for use in their internet research, and to revise their search attempts based on the success of initial results.

This post is the fourth in an ongoing series. Read the other posts in the series: What's a Primary Source?, Observations and InferencesMaps and AtlasesCiting Sources, Asking Questions for Research, Notetaking Skills, and How can we do research with political cartoons?

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