The Library of Congress Pushes Primary Sources

By Mary Ann Zehr — March 27, 2009 1 min read
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As a newcomer to the curriculum beat, I’m excited to learn that educational resources have changed in one really big way since I was in school: Access to primary sources is now easy. I was introduced to some of the 15.3 million items that have been put online by the Library of Congress at an education forum hosted this month by that institution. It’s common now for teachers to draw on the library’s collection of photos taken during the Great Depression when teaching about the 1930s in the United States, but I learned that the library has much more than that.

The library, for example, has created an interactive version of the rough draft of the Declaration of Independence, which enables students to see changes that were made in the text and who made them. It has an 1866 “ribbon map” of the Mississippi River, once used by tourists taking steamboats on the river. It has the laboratory notebook of Alexander Graham Bell, which tells of his invention of the telephone. The notebook includes Bell’s first line spoken on his telephone: “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.”

“You can get so much more out of a primary source than what you can get from a line of fine print in the textbook,” said Carrie Veatch, a social studies teacher for the Vilas Online School in Colorado, who explained at the forum how she prompts her students to examine primary sources to answer challenging questions about history.

The Library of Congress has partnerships with nine states to support educators’ use of primary sources in the classroom, Geraldine M. Otremba, the library’s senior adviser for education, told me at the forum. The library has plans to make its Web site even more robust by June, she said, by adding more lesson plans.

Don’t be surprised if you find Library of Congress staff soon at an education conference near you, giving a presentation on primary sources. They’re trying to get the word out to teachers any way they can.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.