Discover Great Primary Sources with LOC.gov

With over 35 million digitized items available online, the Library of Congress (LOC) is an amazing repository of primary sources and teaching support, but it can also be overwhelming. As a frequent user of loc.gov, I can't say that I've uncovered every resource the site has to offer or mastered every search technique, but there are many that I use frequently and recommend to educators and students.

Teachers Page

The Teachers page (www.loc.gov/teachers) has material that is specifically for educators, and I know many teachers and librarians who begin their online visit here. There is a wealth of curated primary sources as well as resources on how students can learn from them. I am a regular visitor to this site; here are a few of my favorite resources from it:

  • There are over three dozen Primary Source Sets, selections on topics that range from the Spanish American War to weather forecasting (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/classroommaterials/primarysourcesets/). Each set includes a teacher's guide that contains background information and ideas for how students can use the primary sources. One of my favorites, "Understanding the Cosmos," has depictions of the solar system from as early as the 15th century.
  • The "Teacher's Guides and Analysis Tool" page (www.loc.gov/teachers/usingprimarysources/guides.html) has links to both the Primary Source Analysis Tool and teacher's guides showing how to use the tool with different types of primary source formats. These tools are the foundations of how my students interact with primary sources.
  • The Teaching with the Library of Congress blog is linked off the Teachers page (http://blogs.loc.gov/teachers/). I use the blog as a resource for compelling primary sources and strategies. The posts are quick to read and easy to share with colleagues.
  • For a deeper look at the LOC website and how to use primary sources, I access the professional development webinars on the Teachers page (http://www.loc.gov/teachers/professionaldevelopment/webinar/). I enjoy participating live so I can ask questions, but when I can't, recordings of the webinars are posted.

Searching Tips

On the main page of loc.gov, you'll see a search bar. It is a comfortable place for most because it reminds them of a traditional search engine. After an initial search, you will hopefully find a number of results along with filtering options on the left of the screen. I find these options extremely helpful in narrowing my search results.

  • First, I scroll down to Access Condition (under "Refine your Search" at very bottom of list) and narrow my results by selecting only results available online. If I don't do that, I risk running into great sources that I can only see as thumbnails.
  • If I'm focusing on an event or person from a certain time period, I then visit Date. I can narrow down results first by century, then decade, then year.
  • Typically, I then move to Original Format. I may be looking for an image in "Photos, Prints, Drawings" or a letter in "Manuscripts/Mixed Material." Other formats that I regularly search are "Notated Music" where I find sheet music, "Maps," "Audio Recordings," "Personal Narratives," and "Film, Video."

Other options also help me expand and refine my searches.

  • "Part of" shows the collections that the search results are contained within. Clicking "More Parts of" will show all of these collections along with a corresponding number to show how many items are in the collection. I find browsing collections, especially smaller collections, reveals items I may not have found through a traditional search. When you click on a collection, you'll notice a new search bar that allows you to search just within that collection.
  • If I've found an item I think will have related material, I click on "Contributor" or search the name of the contributor of that piece. I may find similar items or a photographer or artist that I was unaware of.
  • I select "More Subjects" under the "Subjects" heading when I am looking for related search terms or want to refine my search but am not sure what terms to use.

Other Areas on loc.gov

Searching loc.gov is one way to find sources and the Teachers page is invaluable, but there are other areas where I may begin my search for primary sources.

  • LOC has intriguing exhibits on display in the Jefferson Building (http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/all/). Current and past exhibits can also be found online and show curated items and background information that students can use as a secondary source. Some of my favorite resources are the multimedia pieces in The Civil Rights Act of 1964 exhibit showing news reports from the time as well as oral histories.
  • The "Lists of Images on Popular Topics" page from the Prints and Photographs Division has links to groups of curated images on topics ranging from civil rights to Prohibition (http://www.loc.gov/rr/print/list/listguid.html). I often browse these groups with educators to see what may connect with an area of their curriculum as a way to start collaboration.
  • Another way to access a curated group of resources is through the Web guides (https://www.loc.gov/rr/program/bib/bibguide.html). While this is a small collection of resources focused on selected people, events, and topics, student researchers will find a wealth of primary sources linked within these guides.
  • The National Jukebox contains thousands of recordings from the first three decades of the 20th century (http://www.loc.gov/jukebox/). While predominantly music, you will also find political speeches and comedy records. I've used the recorded fairy tales with students to compare them to fairy tales of today. The quality of recordings varies greatly based on the quality of the original.
  • The Veterans History Project is a massive collection of personal accounts from American war veterans (http://www.loc.gov/vets/). Not only can students view oral histories, letters, and photos from veterans from World War I to the present, older students can collect oral histories to submit to the project.

Favorite Places Outside of loc.gov

The Library of Congress has several partnerships with other organizations and many of those resources are found on separate sites or can't be searched from the main Library of Congress site.

  • Chronicling America is a collection of over ten million digitized newspaper pages from across the United States dating between 1836 and 1922 that are text searchable (chroniclingamerica.loc.gov). This collection might be my most frequently used resource. Newspaper articles are great primary sources to show an event unfold, explore different perspectives, and mix short and long text pieces to differentiate for students. If overwhelmed, explore the Recommended Topics page containing over 225 places, people, and events (www.loc.gov/rr/news/topics). Each has historical background, search tips, and several articles to get you started on your research.
  • The World Digital Library is a collection of over 14,000 items from libraries, museums, and other institutions from across the world (www.wdl.org). Representing 193 countries and spanning 10,000 years, the sources are rich and diverse. To familiarize yourself with some of the holdings, use the Explore button in the upper-left of the page. Most items have background information that can also be listened to or read in multiple languages.
  • One of the newest collaborations to show itself online is the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (americanarchive.org). The site contains over 13,000 audio and video files from public television and radio programs from the last sixty years. Search features for the site continue to improve. I've found my favorite items by selecting Browse the Collection or Curated Exhibits. I highly recommend the exhibits on presidential elections and the civil rights movement.
  • Read.gov has a wonderful literature focus (www.read.gov). While I typically visit for the Classic Books section, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Educators & Parents section that contains teaching resources, including primary sources, for several classic books; author webcasts; and poetry resources.
  • LOC is also found on social media with its own YouTube channel and Flickr page. Visit the YouTube page for playlists of teacher resources with tips and techniques for working with primary sources as well as a playlist for the past several National Book Festivals where you can watch recorded author and illustrator talks (www.youtube.com/LOC/playlists). The Flickr page has some of the most stunning images from topics like child labor or the Civil War (www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress/albums).

There are certainly areas of loc.gov that I haven't highlighted and search tips that I didn't explore, but these are some of my favorite areas to visit and search techniques I find most successful.

There is one final resource that may be the most valuable on the site. On most pages of loc.gov, you will find the Ask a Librarian link. There you can ask a question that will be answered from a librarian at the Library of Congress. This tool has pointed me in the right direction when I was sure that there were more resources to be found but didn't know where to turn. The responses from the librarians at LOC are thorough, thoughtful, and, as I hope the tips are above, helpful in navigating the vast resources of loc.gov.

About the Author

Tom Bober is a school librarian, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the book Elementary Educator's Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He is a Digital Public Library of America Community Rep, a member of the Teachers Advisory Board for the National Portrait Gallery, and a co-chair of the Education Advisory Committee of the American Archive of Public Broadcasting. Tom writes about student learning on AASL's Knowledge Quest blog and publications such as School Library Connection and American Libraries and has given workshops and spoken across the country. His foundation is built on over twenty years in public education, with six years as an elementary classroom teacher, seven years as a building and district instructional technology specialist, and over eight years in school libraries. Find him at https://tombober.com/ and on Twitter @CaptainLibrary.

MLA Citation Bober, Tom. "Discover Great Primary Sources with LOC.gov." School Library Connection, November 2016, schoollibraryconnection.com/Home/Display/2186194.

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Entry ID: 2048086

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