November 17, 2017

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The Book Palace: One Librarian’s Adventure at the Library of Congress

I should not have worn this dress.

It has a lining, and I can already feel the sweat on my back between my shoulder blades as I walk toward the entrance of the Madison Building. The heat in Washington, DC, is like a humid wall, a relentless scorch that almost feels tangible, like I could reach out and cup it in my hands. The building’s marble shines so brightly in the sun that it almost looks like a mirage. For a moment, I think it is.

It’s supposed to be in the 90s today. Why didn’t you wear a summer dress? 

It’s 8:20 am on Monday. The instructions were very clear that the building does not open to the public until 8:30 am. I notice a few other people looking as uncomfortable as I feel, and I know I have located fellow participants. I sidle up, angling my back against the wall to hide what I’m sure is a lovely sweat stain between my shoulders and nervously make small talk with the other teachers outside a building that is no less than a dream come true for any great lover of books and information.

The Madison Building

The Madison Building

We all chat shyly. Some call DC home, others hail from the farmlands of Iowa, some flew down from Chicago, others drove from New York City, and one came up from the Florida panhandle. We all tried to hide our excitement standing so close to the building.

Suddenly, we are waved through the door for the public. We enter single file and feel a blast of cool air. I now feel how sweaty I really am and wonder if it’s the heat or my nerves, or both. As we prepare to walk through the metal detector in the grand lobby, I look to my left and see the gigantic statue of James Madison, for whom this building is named. You’re here. You’re really here. 

It is my turn. I go through the metal detector, collect my things, and head toward the elevator bank. I am about halfway there before I realize I have no idea where I am going. Then I see the sign with an arrow that reads:

Library of Congress
Summer Teacher Institute
Teaching with Primary Sources

Here we go, I tell myself as I step in the elevator. Here we go. It’s going to be great.

And it was.

What is the Summer Teaching Institute?

The Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute is a program for K–12 educators. There are five weeklong sessions each summer, the first being a specialty session that deals with a particular topic in education.This year it was science, technology, and engineering. Participants in the program, in the words of the library, “draw from among the millions of digitized primary sources in the library’s collections to design and refine a primary source activity to use with their students. While the emphasis is on learning and applying teaching strategies, participants also have opportunities to meet experts from the library and possibly to research in the library’s reading rooms to gather information and resources to use in developing their activities.”

In other words, the educational outreach specialists (who are fantastic) show teachers how to incorporate primary sources into lessons and teach students how to examine, reflect, and pose questions to inform their learning. In the meantime, teachers will work with the educational outreach team to learn how to search all the digitized holdings of the library to build their primary source activity.

I heard about the program in the late fall of 2015 and immediately set a Google alert for the application opening. In early spring of 2016, I applied with the help of my awesome instructional technology specialist. In March, I received an email from the education outreach team. It began, “Thank you for applying, but we cannot offer you a spot in your preferred session.” I was crushed…until I noticed that I was accepted into the latter session. Cue victory dance.

So that is how I came to be in the Montpelier Room in the Madison Building of the Library of Congress, practically vibrating with excitement. I sat at a table with a high school history teacher, a middle school humanities teacher, an elementary school music teacher, and a K–5 librarian like me. After our entire group of 26 went through introductions, the educational outreach team, featuring the teacher-in-residence, began our amazing week.

Abraham Lincoln’s Librarian of Congress, Ainsworth Rand Spofford, referred to the institution as a “book palace,” and trust me, that name fits. It’s also a map palace, a photograph palace, a journal palace, a rare document palace, and more.

What makes a primary source primary, and how can they help our teaching?

If you want to see some serious, sometimes intense, discussion between teachers, pose this question. One of the best parts of the training was the encouragement to rely on our prior knowledge and to be prepared to question what we know. We looked at photographs, newspaper articles, maps, drawings, political cartoons, sheet music, brochures, flyers, editorials, journal entries, and more. We wrote what we considered a primary source and changed it as the discussions progressed. All in all, I had about six different versions as the week went on.

Powers examining an early European map. Each participant was assigned an individual primary source, before combining their findings as a group.

Powers examining an early European map. Each participant was assigned an individual primary source, before combining their findings as a group.

We examined the earliest maps from Europe and considered their creators’ meanings. We read a journal entry from a patent clerk who was in DC the night President Lincoln was assassinated, coupled with an article from a Southern newspaper that practically celebrated the event. We each chose a topic that our students would be learning that fall and built amazing lessons and units using the seemingly endless resources of the library’s website and reading rooms. I picked life in colonial Massachusetts and among the resources I found were: the Massachusetts Bay Colony charter, a 1642 set of laws from England, and a 1700 brochure detailing how to deal with smallpox.

Outside our prescribed projects, we explored the building. The most special treat was an after-hours tour of the Main Reading Room (usually viewed from above through thick glass). The ornate space was featured in National Treasure: Book of Secrets, but—sorry—there is no secret reading room for the president behind the wall. Then, an Etsy-loving librarian’s fantasy: a huge room filled with card catalogs.

A journal entry written the night of Lincoln's assasination

A journal entry written the night of Lincoln’s assassination

My Advice

Every single session and activity was interesting, beneficial, and invigorating—a rare occurrence for professional development. If you are a K–12 educator, I recommend applying for the 2017 programs. (Trust me: set a Google alert.) My advice for those lucky enough to attend?

  • If something sparks your interest, write it down. You will not remember it in 15 minutes, let alone when you get home, because something else is going to intrigue you at any moment.
  • Go to at least one reading room, if only to ogle it. Don’t worry, the staff is used to it.
  • Ask questions, even ones that seem ridiculous. I learned that if I was thinking it, someone else was, too.
  • Check with your school to see if help with expenses is available. The institute covers the cost of the program, as well as a per diem for lunch for the week. However, transportation and lodging are on you.
  • Don’t just seek out fellow attendees who are “like you.” Everyone you meet is a resource.
  • You’re in session from 9 am–5 pm, Monday to Friday, and every second is taken up. Though some museums and attractions stay open late in the summer, extend your stay by a day and take in the sights, if you can.
  • Drink plenty of water—and don’t wear a dress with a lining.

 


Kate Powers is library media specialist at James M. Quinn Elementary School in Darmouth, MA. 

 

 

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Comments

  1. What a great piece Kate! Thanks for sharing your feedback with the library and education professionals reading this. I want to invite you and your colleagues to interact with Library of Congress education content in a free online conference taking place Oct 25-26, 2016 from 4-8 ET. Fifteen sessions are bring offered. More information here
    http://www.loc.gov/teachers/professionaldevelopment/webinar/online-conference-2016.html

  2. Linda Mills says:

    I have to echo Kate’s excitement about this Institute. I participated in one of these in 2012 and it was utterly amazing! I also remember being in awe the first morning waiting to get in and then all of the sites we were able to visit in the library itself (the map room, and the reading room were the two that stuck in my mind). Only a true librarian could get excited about seeing the original card catalog! Interacting with the other participants and with the Institute’s staff was also amazing! Although many of the buildings close early, there was still much to see and do in the evening that was free (walking on the Mall was a highlight in itself.) My husband and I did tack on three days at the end to experience a bit more of the D.C. area! I recommend this to anyone and to save costs we stayed in Alexandria in a hotel with a kitchenette which was cheaper and took the subway downtown everyday (it was a block from our hotel).