I recently attended a Teaching with Primary Sources workshop entitled “Using Primary Sources to Teach Inquiry across the Continuum.” This workshop focused on the resources provided by The Library of Congress and highlighted the millions of primary source documents and tools for teachers located on their website. The Library of Congress has consortiums in seventeen states which coordinate face-to-face trainings and they also provide a series of online modules for teachers on the following topics:
- Introduction to the Library of Congress,
- Supporting Inquiry with Primary Sources,
- Copyright and Primary Sources,
- Analyzing Primary Sources: Photographs and Prints,
- Analyzing Primary Sources: Maps, and
- Finding Primary Sources.
But what’s the point? Why should we study primary source documents? The Library of Congress likes to define primary sources as “the raw materials of history.” These are artifacts created by the people who lived through the events and time periods under study. Primary sources can be letters, photographs, newspaper articles, recorded music and song lyrics, drawings, paintings, poems, film footage, cartoons, maps, speeches, campaign materials, and government documents. Providing students the opportunity to study primary sources can give rise to student inquiry and encourage them to speculate about each source, its creator, and the context in which it was produced.
Ask students to compare each source to other sources from the same time period and to their own prior knowledge. For example, the Library of Congress has a primary source set entitled “Jim Crow in America,” which includes political cartoons, audio files and sheet music, and a pamphlet entitled, “What a colored man should do to vote.” As students read through this pamphlet, they will notice that it was published in Philadelphia in the early 1900s for “colored men” in southern states to apprise them of the laws which stipulate what they have to do to exercise their right to vote. Students could compare this to voting laws of today and contrast the two. They might recall recent attempts to change voting laws and discuss their thoughts and feelings about this issue. Primary sources are natural conduits to the past and can help students form connections to, and understanding for, the people who lived through these times. As students articulate what they’ve learned, ask them to provide reasons and specific evidence to support their conclusions. Ask them to identify what information is missing and what they’d like to investigate further.
The Library of Congress’ stated mission is “to support the Congress in fulfilling its constitutional duties and to further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” And while a visit to the library is well worth the time, more and more of its collection is being digitized and made available to all of us for free through their website, no airfare required. The website can be cumbersome and difficult to search, so take some time to get acquainted with it. Utilize the online modules and start exploring this rich and varied resource for primary sources.
Krista Brakhage is a teacher librarian at Poudre High School in Ft. Collins, Colorado.
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