You may know that teachers and students are allowed to use copyrighted materials in class for research and education purposes. But, when educators post images or videos online — say in a cool-looking social studies video — that’s a gray area.

Luckily, there’s a wealth of images online that are either out of copyright or were created by the US government, and exist in the public domain.

Medieval Image

Detail from a Book of Hours
from the British Library, through Europeana Labs

Here’s a list of some of our favorite sources for social studies materials so you and your students can create educational videos. Not only are the sources listed below full of great, public domain images, they also offer students an exciting gateway into researching with primary sources. Take a look:

Sources for historical images

  • National Archives: If you want to find a digital copy of the Declaration of Independence, have a class researching the American Civil War, or just want some photos of America in the 20th Century, this is a good place to start. Many important documents and images are housed here, and the layout is very teacher-friendly.

    Preamble to The United States Constitution
      from the National Archives

  • The Smithsonian Institute: This resource has 1.3 million media files online, including records from just about every period in American history. The Smithsonian’s collection is searchable by topic, place, and even language, though you can use their simple search feature if you have a particular subject in mind. It also maintains a Flickr account with a wide selection of images.
  • Europeana Labs: Co-financed by the European Union, this resource links to more than 40 million records, including many historical images and photographs related to European history, available for download.

    Fashion Plate Image
      from ModeMuseum Provincie Antwerpen, through Europeana Labs

  • The Library of Congress: This site has a wealth of information, and many of its resources are in the public domain, including its collection of maps and portraits of American Presidents. The search function is very easy and lets you include a number of variables (year, location, language, etc.).
  • Digital Public Library of America: Representing information from libraries, archives and universities across the United States, this site is a wonderful resource for educators. The Digital Public Library also includes primary source sets that are designed specifically for teachers, with images grouped together by topic.
    Boston Massacre

    Washington Irving Engraving of Boston Massacre
    from the New York Public Library, through Digital Public Library

  • Metropolitan Museum of Art: Part of the museum’s digital collection is considered public domain, including many pieces of art that relate to world history. Just look for images with an OASC (Open Access for Scholarly Content) label underneath the image, and remember to indicate you found the image on the Met’s website.

Rules for using public domain sources

This is a broad list of public domain sources. However, you should still check individual images for restrictions. Moreover, if you take materials from one of the sources above, remember these basic rules:

  • Cite the source and its URL.
  • Use the material for educational purposes only.
  • Don’t make changes to the image.
  • Comply with any other terms or restrictions that may apply to your image.

Creating videos with public domain sources is an easy way to find relevant, copyright-free images. Plus, it gives students meaningful practice working with primary sources and doing research while keeping them engaged by what they’re learning.

Do you and your students know how to rock the National Archive? Show us how you transform history into video. Link to your social studies videos in the comments below or share them on Facebook and Twitter.