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Finding Public Domain Sources for Your Class Essay


Student researching public domain sources for essayAre you looking for primary sources for your humanities or social studies school projects? Primary sources are original materials or research and secondary sources are those materials that talk about primary sources. For example, an autobiography is a primary source and a biography is a secondary source.

One great place to find primary sources are websites that digitize materials placed in public domain. These materials are not subject to copyright laws and are freely available to all.

Definition of Public Domain

Public domain refers to those materials, such as books, art, papers not covered by copyright law and are available freely to all.

Some factors that determine public domain in the United States:

  • All works published before 1924 are in public domain.
  • Works published after 1923 but before 1964 have an initial 28 years of copyright status. If the owner does not renew the copyright before the 28-year period, the work becomes public domain. Timely renewal gives the owner another 95 years of copyright protection.
Note:  Copyright laws are extensive and strict! Make sure you research thoroughly before assuming works are in the public domain. One way to find good public domain material is to access it through indexed sites. These sites do their own careful research and you can feel safe that the materials are in the public domain.

Public Domain Archives

Fair Use Blog

The Copyright & Fair Use site, hosted by Stanford University, provides an overview of public domain and lists four reasons works enter the public domain:

  • Expired copyright
  • Owner forgot to renew
  • Owner places into public domain
  • Not protected by copyright law

It explains about dedicated works, clip art use, government work and much more. There is a blog with answered questions.

Online Books

The Online Books Page website claims over 2 million books indexed and available freely online. The books are full text readable online but may not have all illustrations or appendices. It also lists free online serial publications such as magazines, newspapers and journals.

Website of the Public Domain Review

An interesting site created in 2011 to provide access to public domain materials in art, history and ‘other compelling’ material. The collection includes primary source images, video and audio recordings gathered from the Biodiversity Heritage Library, Smithsonian and the National Library of the Netherlands plus many other institutions. For example,  you can find a digitized version of John Locke’s Method for Common Place Books, published in 1685

Center for the Study of the Public Domain

The Center for the Study of the Public Domain has extensive resources and information about public domain. Public domain laws, notifications of materials as they enter public domain, along with links to public domain materials and original research.

Finding primary sources through public domain materials is exciting and fun. The websites listed above are just a small sample of what you can find online. Write a unique paper with fun sources for your humanities or social studies paper. Remember to double check to make sure you are not using someone’s copyrighted material without permission to avoid plagiarism.

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About the author

Adrienne Mathewson

Adrienne Mathewson, Editor-in-Chief of Bibliography.com, is an Information Professional with a Master’s in Library, Information & Science from San José State University with an emphasis on information literacy and scholarly publishing. She is a certified librarian through the State of New Mexico.

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