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Beyond Typescript and Photographs:
Using Primary Sources in Different Formats

By Danna Bell-Russel

As a reference librarian and archivist working in the Educational Outreach Division of the Library of Congress, I answer questions from teachers seeking primary sources to help students engage in inquiry, develop critical thinking skills and construct knowledge. While many teachers use photographs and transcribed documents, which are familiar and accessible to most students, a wider range of formats is available among the Library’s digitized collections. Analyzing primary sources in different formats helps students to explore the ways that people have documented their stories throughout history, offers multiple points of view, and shows the historical role and limitations of technology.

Handwritten Manuscripts: A Lost Art and a Key to History

How many of your students write letters? Most probably tweet, use Facebook or Skype to correspond with family and friends. Before such technologies changed the way we communicate, people relied primarily on pen and paper to document their experiences. Today, few students write in longhand. As a personal means of expression, handwritten manuscripts offer unique and intimate perspectives on large-scale historical events. Although some of the Library's manuscript collections include transcriptions, many students enjoy the challenge of reading original handwriting.

During the Civil War, messengers delivered soldiers’ letters to loved ones at home and brought back news to the battlefield. One of the Library's manuscript collections, A Civil War Soldier in the Wild Cat Regiment, includes letters to and from Tilton C. Reynolds, a member of the 105th Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers. Reynolds corresponded with his family and their letters document the difficulties they faced, especially after Confederates captured Tilton and sent him to prisoner-of-war camps in Virginia and North Carolina.

Begin a lesson by analyzing Orlando Gray’s letter describing the Battle of Williamsburg. To facilitate student analysis, preselect questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Manuscripts. Guided analysis will help students observe details and reflect on the effects of this battle and of the war on soldiers and their families. Whatever type of source format is used, consider asking students to complete the Primary Source Analysis Tool to document and organize their thinking. Encourage them to identify questions for further investigation. For example, “How did Confederates view the Battle of Williamsburg?” might lead to analyzing manuscripts written by soldiers on the opposing side.

Posters, Prints and Drawings: Making History Visual

Many teachers are comfortable using photographs—but perhaps not other kinds of primary source visual materials—to encourage critical thinking among students. Posters, prints and drawings can help students learn about history through the visual media of the time under study. Such primary sources can show what people valued, what they were thinking about and how advertisers and others tried to sway public opinion. Search the Library’s Prints & Photographs Online Catalog for collections featuring a variety of visual formats--including architectural drawings, baseball cards and cartoon drawings.

Posters: WPA Posters is a wonderful resource. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) commissioned these posters to tell communities about upcoming events, provide healthcare information and encourage Americans to learn more about their country. Use preselected questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Photographs and Prints to help students examine one or more of these WPA posters—such as the poster promoting the national parks. Consider why these posters were created and for what audiences. Students can create their own posters to highlight important current issues.

History and the Movies: Motion Pictures as Primary Sources

Many students routinely use YouTube, Hulu and other websites for watching streaming video online. How many students know that in the past, motion pictures were only in black and white, and that some were silent—though possibly accompanied by live music played by an organist at the theater? Films provide a visual, moving reminder of how people’s lives then were very different in many ways from our lives now.

The Spanish-American War was the first U.S. war in which the motion picture camera played a role. The Spanish-American War in Motion Pictures includes films from before and during that war as well as re-enactments filmed after it ended. This collection provides an opportunity to help students understand why some primary sources were created and the bias that exists in most primary sources. Raising Old Glory Over Morro Castle, a reenactment, is brief and visually simple. Use preselected questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Motion Pictures to help students reflect on the film and place it into historical context. To learn more about what people were saying at the time, check out the historical newspapers available in Topics in Chronicling America – Major Events of the Spanish-American War.

Giving the Past a Voice: Incorporating Oral Histories

The Library of Congress has a number of oral history collections. American Life Histories and Born in Slavery provide amazing stories of life during the Civil War, Reconstruction and the start of the 20th century. These vibrant and thought provoking firsthand accounts of daily life can help students connect the past to their own experiences.

A few of the Library’s oral history collections include sound recordings of interviews as well as the transcriptions. The Veterans History Project collects the stories of American war veterans from World War I to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Students can read transcripts when available as they listen to interview recordings. A veteran’s accent or emotions may personalize the war experience.

Voices from the Days of Slavery is another wonderful oral history collection. It includes audio interviews with former slaves recorded during the Great Depression. Through their voices, students may be able to hear both the sadness of the slave experience and the pride of surviving that experience.

Whether students listen to oral history interviews, read the transcripts or both, ask them to determine which questions provoked the most and least interesting responses. They also can identify questions they might have asked if conducting the interview. Ask students why it is important to record and preserve oral histories.

Historic Sheet Music and Sound Recordings: Soundtrack to the Past

Use selections from the Historic Sheet Music Collection, 1800-1922 to study history through music. Song lyrics, combined with artwork used on some of these sheet music covers, document many important events and social issues in that time period. Encourage students to analyze sheet music to compare and contrast artistic depictions for topics such as women’s changing role in society. For example, search this collection using the keyword, “women.” Results include What’s the Matter with Women?, a song whose lyrics oppose women’s suffrage. Use questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Sheet Music and Song Sheets to help students notice details, reflect on what they can learn from studying this primary source and identify questions for further investigation.

The Library’s collections also include musical and spoken word sound recordings. Recently, the Library and Sony Music Entertainment launched the National Jukebox, which provides free access to over 10,000 historic recordings, originally released in the U.S. between 1901 and 1925. Students can explore this era and in some cases, listen to recordings of artists performing songs whose sheet music is available in the Library’s collections.

For other musical perspectives on history, the Library also has several folklife collections that feature sound recordings of people’s songs, stories and histories. One example is Voices from the Dust Bowl, which documents the life and times of Dust Bowl refugees living in Farm Security Administration (FSA) migrant work camps in California.

Historic Maps: Providing a Sense of Place

Maps provide portable images to help find the way to unfamiliar places. Maps also document everything from a certain place at a specific time to special events or celebrations, and even claimed territory. Maps supply visual documentation of terrain, environmental characteristics and more—including clues to a particular mapmaker’s point of view—what the mapmaker thought was important at the time.

Have students analyze a map from 1667 titled, “A mapp of Virginia discovered to ye hills” to determine if anything about this map is different from others that they may have seen. Questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Maps can help students observe details, consider why this map was created, and what can be learned from it.

Teachers may wish to use maps in combination with other primary source formats from the Library’s collections. Railroad Maps and railroad time schedules found in the Broadsides and Printed Ephemera collection can teach about measuring distance and the time needed to travel between two locations. For example, have students analyze the broadside on Great Northern and Western Railroad and Steamboat route to determine the costs of traveling from one place to another, or compare distances using the map of the Rutland and Burlington Railroad.

Endless Instructional Possibilities

This article points to just some of the many different primary source formats available from Teaching with primary sources in a variety of formats, whether used separately or together, offers endless instructional possibilities. Students can better understand the past’s complexity and richness by analyzing a different primary source formats that show a diverse range of documentation methods, points of view and technologies. Millions of digitized items from the Library’s collections are available for use with students across grade levels and subjects. For assistance, check out the self-guided professional development modules, Themed Resources for Teachers, the web guides developed by the Library’s Digital Reference Section, or Ask a Librarian.

Danna Bell-Russel is an Educational Resources Specialist at the Library of Congress. A reference librarian and archivist, she previously served as a member of the Library’s Digital Reference Section, the first reference division created to specifically to answer questions about the online resources found on