The Primary Source Librarian

Dedicated to Excellence in Teaching with Primary Sources
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    The Primary Source Librarian is a friendly professional space where you can find information, advice, and support for teaching with primary sources. Check out the links to primary source collections, discover the best primary source lesson plans, learn what's happening in the world of digitization, explore the links you find in each post, and share your own primary source experiences!
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    Thoughts of a Wannabe Historian

    Posted By on January 18, 2014

    I may have missed my calling. Only since I discovered the power of primary sources have I yearned for a new career as a historian. Reading history textbooks aloud in high school classes put me to sleep. I could never understand how my mother could read one biography after another from American history. I did experience briefly the pull of history in university classes. In my undergraduate days, a class in American government viewed through a systems approach fascinated me, as did a Western civilization class that neatly tied up loose ends of intellectual history.

    Today I read history. For fun. Granted, most of my reading choices (sometimes in audiobook form for my visits to the gym) would be called “popular history” — books by Jon Meacham, David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Walter Isaacson, Candice Millard, Erik Larson, and more. Biographies may not count, but I’m not a purist. I’m only a wannabe, so I can get away with squishy definitions of history.

    Occasionally I pick up one of those serious, heavily footnoted history books on a more obscure topic. For example, I recently finished listening to a recording of The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell, written in 1791. After forty-three hours of listening to the narrator’s upper class British accent, I knew everything I would ever need to know about Mr. Johnson. Line in the Sand: A History of the U.S.-Mexican Border, by Rachel St. John, taught me the complexities of border politics and struggles and gave me new insights into how history informs present-day immigration issues. I finished it in six weeks, just in time to avoid a library fine.

     

    Search for Arms, Mexican Border Bain News Service ca. 1910-1915 Library of Congress

    Search for Arms, Mexican Border
    Bain News Service
    ca. 1910-1915
    Library of Congress

    Sadly missing from the audio books are the primary sources. I confess that I’ve gone into bookstores expressly to look at the pictures in the “real” books. Guiltily, I often walk out with a new purchase, especially if I’m visiting an independent bookstore.

    Who knows what the teaching of primary source analysis and historical thinking skills might lead our students to consider in their own futures? Certainly, not many of our students will become historians, but even if they simply turn into wannabe historians like me, their lives will be made richer if we instill in them a love of  primary sources.

     

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    Looking Beyond Our Profession

    Posted By on July 9, 2013

    Even though social media has expanded our capacity to interact with educators from around the world, often our Twitter and other social media environments  still keep us fairly insulated from people outside our profession. I am occasionally reminded that I have something to offer those “outsiders” if I only remember to look.

    Last week my husband and I and two friends spent a delightful afternoon and evening in the nearby Rocky Mountains with a friend whose family has owned a cabin in an idyllic setting for many decades. While we relaxed on the cabin’s deck overlooking a pond at sunset following a long hike, the conversation turned to what we had been reading, as it so often does. Our friend had been reading Isabel Wilkerson’s superb book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration, for her book club. I replied that I had recently seen a Teaching with the Library of Congress blog post by Meg Steele on the topic of the epic exodus of African Americans from the South to the industrial cities of the North during the decades from 1917 to 1970.

    Later in the week, I remembered to send the blog link to our friend: The Great Migration in Library of Congress Primary Sources. I suggested that she might like to share copies of the letters featured in the post with her book club members. The two letters had been written by prospective immigrants to Chicago from Macon, Georgia, and Mobile, Alabama. Unfortunately, their low resolution made for rather unsatisfactory prints.

    Knowing as I do that the majority of employees at the Library of Congress find special delight in serving the public, I wrote to the Library’s Ask a Librarian service to find out if any higher resolution image might exist. Less than twenty-four hours later, I received the following response:

    Dear Ms. Johnson,

    This is in response to your inquiry to the Library’s Manuscript Division. As you are aware, this division is the custodian of the Carter G. Woodson papers. The collection is on-site and open to research.

    This collection has been microfilmed, and for reasons of preservation, we require readers to use the microfilm edition of our collections when such editions are available. For your reference, I located the two letters in which you are interested on reel 7 of the collection. I also located the originals in box 10 of the collection and have attached complimentary PDF scans.

    For further questions about higher quality reproductions, please contact the Library’s Duplication Services. It may take up to 4-6 weeks for copies to be made and prepayment is required. When making your request, please provide the collection name, box/reel number, and description of the material with your order. Further information about pricing and ordering is available online at:

    http://www.loc.gov/duplicationservices/

    I hope that this information is useful. Please let me know if you have questions or need further assistance.

    Imagine that! Somebody at the Library of Congress went searching for the originals of the two letters, identified their location in case I could ever actually visit the Manuscript Division Reading Room, and made PDF scans just for me!

    I think this little tale has two lessons for me:

    1. You never know what people outside the education profession might love to learn about the Library of Congress and its primary sources.
    2. Even when you think you’re an expert at all things Library of Congress related, there’s always someone who knows more and is willing to help.

    Below are the images of the two letters sent to me in .pdf format, then edited to display in WordPress as .jpg images…it’s never easy!

     

    Letter from Cleveland Galliard of Mobile, Alabama, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, Chicago, Illinois, 1917. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division

    Letter from Cleveland Galliard of Mobile, Alabama, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, Chicago, Illinois, 1917. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division

     

    Letter from Mobile, AL p2

    Page 2 of Letter from Cleveland Galliard of Mobile, Alabama, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association, Chicago, Illinois, 1917. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division

     

     

     

     

    Letter from Mrs. J. H Adams, Macon, Georgia, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois, 1918. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division

    Letter from Mrs. J. H Adams, Macon, Georgia, to the Bethlehem Baptist Association in Chicago, Illinois, 1918. Carter G. Woodson Papers, Manuscript Division

     

    
    
    
    
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    Learning the Culture of New Networks

    Posted By on May 12, 2013

    The real reason I have not written a blog post for months is that my work with the Library of Congress has taken over my “leisure” time. In other words, I flunked retirement. Nevertheless, when I took on the job of coordinating the beta test of a new learning network for teachers interested in using primary sources from the Library of Congress, I did promise that I could work from anywhere in the world as long as I had Internet access. I’ve put that promise to the test several times. The latest test has found me working from an apartment in Paris that my husband and I rented for a month in celebration of our 40th wedding anniversary.

    We lived in Paris for one year some thirty-nine years ago when I received a fellowship to teach English in a French lycée. Just as in 1974-1975, every daily task from buying a baguette to relearning the metro system represents a culture shock at some level. For example, in the boulangerie, there’s one line for people only buying bread and another for those adding pastries and cakes to their purchases. In the metro, you must figure out where to insert your cash and in some cases turn a little scrolling wheel and push valider to select a carnet of ten tickets or to refill a metro pass. Even with English screens as a guide, the system requires some critical thinking and a few failures before you reach any level of confidence.

    Paris, Porte de la Villette Metro during World War I

    Paris, Porte de la Villette Metro during World War I

    In a French apartment, you must learn new systems as well. How do you use a faucet that arranges hot and cold from top to bottom rather than from left to right? How do you make coffee in a two-part coffee pot on a stovetop? How do you dry clothes without a rack or clothes dryer? (Hint: Just be happy there’s a washing machine.)

    These examples may all seem minor, but they do contribute to a certain level of discomfort that only practice, experience, and close observation can overcome.

    When new users approach an online network experience, they must figure out the network’s culture and rules, too. They must figure out the quirks. They must look for clues. And if they have never experienced a social learning environment, who will be there to guide them?

    Some network users struggle, but others have the same mindset that makes learning a new culture more fun than frustration. They know when to ask questions, even if they lack fluency in a different language. They don’t worry about asking the right question, or even about asking a question in the wrong place. They simply ask.

    Or they play. And they laugh at their mistakes. The people most likely to succeed as users of an unfamiliar learning network exhibit fearlessness in the face of a tool that doesn’t work as expected, a non-intuitive registration process, or unfamiliar features such as adding tags to a post. They test, they mess up, they learn from mistakes, and they explore ways to connect with others because they value the goals of the network. Eventually they warm up to the idea that what they get out of a new network makes what they put in to the network worth every bit of culture shock.

    It’s not so different from finding your way through any new culture. Of course, speaking French (or “network speak”) helps, but if you show a willingness to learn by doing, you will adapt to a new culture whether you know the language or not.

     

     

     

    What’s Wrong with Primary Sources?

    Posted By on November 18, 2012

    Last week at the request of one of my colleagues at the Library of Congress, I compiled a list of organizations and individuals who regularly tweet about primary sources. Just in case I had missed any, I searched Twitter for the keywords primary sources. Since I follow teachers and education organizations almost exclusively, I was surprised that nearly all the tweets about primary sources came from students. That’s a different world entirely!

    One of the first hits was exactly what I had hoped to read from a student (a self-described history nerd):

    Another tweet from an “overachiever” made me chuckle:

    Aside from those two tweets, however, other student tweets about primary sources made me:

    1. Drop my jaw at the language.
    2. Scratch my head at what the teacher could possibly have been thinking.
    3. Want to help every student who was struggling.
    4. Want to shake any teacher who throws students to the primary source wolves.

    First, there were the “huh?” tweets that indicated lack of direction, lack of training in how to search and find relevant primary sources, and yes, lack of attention on the part of one student:

    Some of the tweets from students were actually quite positive, or at least enterprising:

    Unfortunately, by far the majority demonstrated deep frustration at the number of “required” primary sources and the near impossibility of finding them without the necessary guidance. Not to mention an understanding of the “why” of primary sources. I love primary source sets as much as any history or social studies teacher, but have these students learned how to analyze even a single primary source? I wonder.

    And tell me truthfully, is this a reasonable assignment?

    One student wondered how in the world (not the language she used) she was supposed to find primary sources about Russia IN ENGLISH. I’m on her side.

    I know I cannot change every student’s attitude toward primary sources, but I do feel inspired to renew my efforts to work with teachers through professional development workshops and other venues. There’s so much to be learned even from this small sampling of student tweets, starting with the WHY of them all! I’d love to read your comments. Why do you think students end up hating primary sources? What can we do about it?

    Finally, I leave you with this cute but oh-so-resigned tweet about primary sources:

    Windmills or Wind Turbines? A Portuguese Metaphor

    Posted By on June 18, 2012

    Since I started a consulting job with the Library of Congress in late March, I’ve led a whirlwind life, complete with a previously planned two-week trip to Portugal and Spain, a two-day Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium meeting in Washington, a week-long Summer Teacher Institute at the Library of Congress, meetings, gallery openings, graduations, and more. I’ve worked before, during, and between travels. Now I’m feeling the need for a personal “debrief” in my head, and what better time than a 4-hour plane ride from D.C. to Denver!

    As I was driving through the hilly landscapes of Portugal in May, I was struck by the odd juxtaposition of century-old windmills and modern wind turbines that lined the crests of hills. Most of the old stone windmills lacked their sails, but some of them continue to function today. It occurred to me that effective organizations (schools? libraries?) also value the wisdom and rich knowledge of years of tradition while they boldly experiment with new technologies and ideas.

    Traditional Portuguese Windmill
    Moinho de vento em Cabanas de Torres
    Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

    I’ve been working for 2 ½ months now as a consultant in social media for the Educational Outreach division of the Library of Congress. My learning curve has been steep, but the real surprise has been learning to recognize and value an entirely different organizational culture. I think the Portuguese windmill metaphor might help me adjust.

    The Library of Congress has earned its reputation as a respected and even venerated institution over more than two centuries. The Library didn’t reach that level of respect by embracing every new doohickey to come along, nor did it earn its reputation by remaining stodgily embedded in the 1800s. Moreover, because the Library’s funding comes directly from politicians in the U.S. Congress, it must pay particular attention to political winds. It’s a tricky balance, and it requires great care to maintain programs while simultaneously advancing them.

    For over two decades, the Library of Congress has led the world in the digitization of primary sources. The Library has put enormous resources into developing technologies and standards for digitization. At the same time, it takes seriously its role as a public service institution, and we in education are the direct beneficiaries of many of the Library’s outreach efforts.

    The Educational Outreach division is moving on a forward trajectory in spite of the weight of tradition. Like every other initiative, social media programs must meticulously follow federal regulations, copyright law, and all the keenly felt “rules” of the larger organization. As a result, social media plans sometimes move more like a lumbering elephant than a speedy roadrunner. I am learning patience, but I’m also gaining a huge respect for the brilliance and dedication of the people with whom I work most closely. They clearly believe in the educational potential of social media.

    I am, in fact, in awe of these people, and I am continually learning from them. On the one hand, they possess the wisdom and appreciation for tradition like the preservers of those old Portuguese windmills. On the other hand, they demonstrate levels of planning and project management experience that I may never reach – like the engineers who design and harness the power of those gigantic wind turbines.

    Let the wind blow!

    Portuguese Wind Turbines
    EU Infrastructure, 19 June 2012
    http://www.euinfrastructure.com/news/portugal-a-renewable-energy-leader/

    Three Questions

    Posted By on February 29, 2012

    Sometimes simple is best. When I introduce skills for asking questions of primary sources, I usually start with a three-question form from the Library of Congress that is no longer all that easy to locate.

    Thinking about Primary Sources

    (Click the above link for a PDF version.)

    Why do I keep going back to this early form?

    1. It’s easy to remember three questions.
    2. It works for all ages and with all types of primary sources (not just visual).
    3. It’s helpful for distinguishing between direct observation and inference (a vital critical thinking and literacy skill).
    4. It’s pretty.
    5. It makes it OK to wonder.
    6. It encourages further inquiry.

    Now I’ll admit that there are other graphic organizers “out there” that teachers love. For example, the “Analysis Worksheets” from the National Archives (NARA) have been widely shared, including by me.

    I also share a well done set of “Teacher Guides and Analysis Tools” developed by the Educational Outreach team at the Library of Congress. Like the NARA worksheets, these tools separate primary source formats and ask questions specific to those formats – books, manuscripts, maps, motion pictures, oral histories, photographs and prints, political cartoons, sheet music or song sheets, and sound recordings. That can be really helpful to both teachers and students.

    But I still keep coming back to the three-question organizer. For the same reasons. Mostly because it’s simple.

    The three questions remind me of the “Visible Thinking” work at Project Zero (Harvard University Graduate School of Education). In particular, the thinking routine suggested for exploring “works of art and other interesting things” (in this case, primary sources) starts with three simple words:

    See

    Think

    Wonder

    I believe these three words correspond perfectly to the three questions in the  Thinking about Primary Sources organizer:

    See=What do you observe?

    Think=What do you think you know?

    Wonder=What do you want to find out?

    Do you have a favorite way to help students think about primary sources?

     

    2,501 Migrants and a Lesson in Checking Sources

    Posted By on January 2, 2012

    I just returned yesterday from a one-week stay in Oaxaca, Mexico, where I experienced an extraordinary art exhibit by Alejandro Santiago.

    Artist Alejandro Santiago, Caldwell Snyder Gallery, San Francisco

    During my family’s first walk into the center of Oaxaca, we noticed policemen unloading truckloads of clay figure sculptures and carefully laying them down on the street in front of the Santo Domingo de Guzman Church. By the end of the day, there were hundreds of these sculptures, now standing throughout the pedestrian area near the church. Policemen guarded them. Visitors took their photographs with the figures. Many simply stared in silent contemplation. Others walked among them.

    A passerby told us that she had heard that each one represented a Mexican worker killed by American border guards while trying cross into the United States. For several days we accepted her explanation, but it was quite simply wrong!

    When I teach about the use of primary sources to promote critical thinking, the idea of “sourcing” sometimes comes up. Did the lady with the wrong information represent a primary source much like an oral history or was this only her opinion? Did she have firsthand knowledge of the art exhibit or of the artist? As a learner, I needed to check her “facts” by collecting evidence from multiple sources.

    The search for the truth about the exhibit led me to several fascinating sources:

    If you skim the Web sites and watch the trailer, you will learn that Alejandro Santiago did not intend to make any political statement. His motivation was purely artistic and cultural. Two thousand five hundred of the figures represent the inhabitants of his native Zapotec village of Teococuilco — more than half the population — who left to find work in northern Mexico and in the United States. The single remaining figure represents Santiago himself.

    I hope my readers will spend a few minutes following the above links to this remarkable story. How could you use this story to help students understand the impact of immigration on the Mexican families that remain behind? In all the American political hoopla about illegal immigration, is theirs the story that is not being told? I think the potential for deep and difficult conversations and learning is all here in this artist’s story.

    For a more complete online visit, check out this outstanding slide show shared on Flickr by yaxchibonam:   Photostream of 2,501 Migrants

    In addition, here are three photos of the exhibit from my iPhone:

    La Ruta del Migrante

    Exhibit in Front of Santo Domingo Church

    Exhibit along Pedestrian Street

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    Keeping My Feet on the Ground

    Posted By on November 30, 2011

    One of the disadvantages of working as an education consultant is the temptation to dwell in a world of theory. I once asked a school superintendent and superb conference speaker if he had ever considered committing to a full-time speaking circuit. He responded, “Absolutely not. I’d give myself six months to become completely irrelevant.” Ouch.

    To fight against this idea of irrelevance, I value and welcome every possible opportunity to learn from the real teacher soldiers in our school trenches. Every workshop I present teaches me something about a teacher’s reality:

    • A teacher who taught 6th grade mathematics last year and 7th and 8th grade social studies this year — the curse of the “highly qualified” teacher.
    • A librarian who worked for years to build a strong open-schedule program only to be ordered to return to a fixed schedule as a “specials” teacher.
    • A teacher hired at the last minute to ease the 40-students-per-class load of two grade levels.
    • A teacher assigned to the inclusion class at her grade level, with seven severe needs kids and an aide added to her class.
    • Several teachers who did not yet know their teaching assignments two weeks from the beginning of a school year.

    Not every teacher’s reality is negative, but I am constantly reminded that every teacher encounters a unique set of challenges that can change vastly from year to year. In one recent workshop I met Native American teachers at a pueblo school, a teacher who was adjusting to what he perceived as huge differences in his students’ background knowledge from one state to the next, and a teacher who had dealt with a dangerous fight the previous day.

    The young pre-service teachers in a workshop I did just yesterday were excited and a bit nervous, I think, about their upcoming practice teaching experiences. During my trip home, I wondered how much they really understood about the world of teaching they were about to enter. And yet, each one of them was present for a rather grueling 8-hour workshop during “Dead Week” — the week before final exams. That already says something about their resilience and commitment. They’re going to need it.

    No matter who comes to my workshops about teaching with primary sources, I am grateful to each one for keeping my feet on the ground and for enriching my own professional life with their stories.

    Elementary school children standing and watching teacher write at blackboard, Washington, D.C., ~1899, Library of Congress

    Three Blogs about Primary Sources

    Posted By on November 15, 2011

    I want to pass on three blogs that I regularly read for their teaching ideas and valuable links to primary sources.

    I hope you’ll add these to your own RSS feeds. Just look for this RSS icon to subscribe:

    This is a relatively new blog written by Library of Congress Educational Resource Specialists and other expert contributors. The posts appear every few days, and they are all of the absolute highest quality. They’re filled with links to primary sources. Many of them connect to events or holidays, and because they are so timely, they can rescue a teacher with a “just-in-time” lesson idea. For example, just for the month of November, you can find ideas for Veterans Day, Thanksgiving, and Native American Heritage Month. Over time, you can also pick up ideas for getting started with primary sources, find primary source analysis tools, and discover hidden treasures that simply enrich your understanding of the Library of Congress collections.

    Shaun Usher edits this fun and informative blog, and I look forward to reading a historical letter every weekday on this site. Shaun writes in his description of the blog: “Letters of Note is an attempt to gather and sort fascinating letters, postcards, telegrams, faxes, and memos. Scans/photos where possible. Fakes will be sneered at.” In the past month I’ve read a letter from an American soldier daddy on Adolf Hitler’s personal stationery, an early informal resume from Madonna, a letter from Jimi Hendrix to his father, a leaked Jeffrey Katzenberg letter trying to refocus the Walt Disney company, an Albert Einstein letter to the father of a boy who has just died of polio, and many more. The variety of topics and famous people make for fascinating learning. You can follow Shaun on Twitter @lettersofnote.

    Like me, author Mary Alice Anderson is a former American Memory Fellow, and she is also an enthusiastic proponent of teaching with primary sources. In fact, she teaches a course called “Teaching with Primary Sources” at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. She has long been a leader in the school library world, and I’ve followed her writing for the past twenty years. Her blog offers an interesting mix of field trips, primary source teaching ideas, and school library issues.

    If you enjoy reading other blogs about primary sources in teaching, I hope you’ll pass them on through the comments. Thanks!

    Putting Students at the Center of QR Code Learning

    Posted By on October 5, 2011

    Something has been bothering me about QR codes. When teachers first learn about QR codes, they immediately start thinking of all the ways they can use them to make learning more exciting. Their minds race ahead to projects with QR codes, scavenger hunts with QR codes, QR codes that introduce students to new concepts, and much more. Just let the kids use the cool tools and the cool iPods or iPads or smartphones and school will be wonderful.

    Sounds good. So what’s my problem with all these ideas for using QR codes?

    They are all teacher-directed. The teacher chooses the questions. The teacher finds the answers. The teacher makes the QR codes. The student receives. I don’t really see this scenario as an improvement over the lecture method.

    Furthermore, if students are working with primary sources, teacher-provided QR codes do not take the place of solid historical analysis. They’re not much different from reading a textbook description of a primary source.

    What if we instead encouraged students to gain understanding of a primary source by selecting resources that build context? What if the students had to debate the merits of their choices of contextual resources? How would a group set norms to justify one choice over another? Should they write a caption for a primary source photograph or a contextual paragraph for each primary source? These decisions could all precede QR code production.

    Only after hashing out decisions about which sources best explain a concept or fill in the historical context around a primary source would the students…yes, the students…produce their QR codes.