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Lesson Plan The Evolution of the Book: Introducing Students to Visual Analysis

Students will develop visual literacy skills by analyzing the images from John White Alexander’s mural in the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress, while learning about the history of the Library of Congress. Then, students will further their skills by using tools of art and design to analyze other images from the Library’s extensive online collections.


Students will be able to:

  • Analyze a visual resource
  • Extract meaning from images
  • Use graphic organizers to record observations and thoughts

Time Required

Two classes

Lesson Preparation

Have the necessary materials ready before the activity:



Before leading students through this lesson, teachers should be familiar with the following Library of Congress resources:

Online versions of the mural images:

Additional resources:

  • Marshall, Blaine and Alexander Hovan. The Thomas Jefferson Building, The Library of Congress. Washington: The Library of Congress, 2003.

Lesson Procedure

Activity One - (One Class Period)

  1. Introduce the lesson by displaying images of the Library of Congress and sharing a brief history of the need for a new congressional library.
  2. Present class with investigative questions (display or write on board):
    • What story from the past was Alexander trying to tell through this series of paintings?
    • Why was this appropriate for the building of a new congressional library?
  3. Explain that the class will now observe and analyze the paintings from John White Alexander’s mural in the Thomas Jefferson building of the Library of Congress to try to answer the investigative questions.

    Note: If students do not have much experience with primary source analysis, consider modeling this beforehand using the primary source analysis tool and an image already in the classroom. For tips and prompts, refer to Using Primary Sources.
    • Distribute one copy of the Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF, 79 KB) to each student. Tell students they will be working in groups, but will each be responsible for recording information about each painting on their own graphic organizers. (Teacher option: Collect one completed graphic organizer from each group.)
    • Divide class into 6 groups, and give each group one picture of either: “The Cairn” (PDF, 306 KB), “Oral Tradition” (PDF, 339 KB), or “Hieroglyphics” (PDF, 283 KB). Two groups will analyze each picture.
    • Post the third copy of each picture on the board, randomly.
    • Assign or allow students to choose someone from each group to perform the following tasks:
      Facilitator: keeps the conversation focused on the paintings and reminds members that they are going to answer the two investigative questions.
      Guide: presents the group with guiding questions at the appropriate moments, i.e., when the conversation stalls. **Distribute one copy of “Guiding Questions” (PDF, 19 KB) to each Guide.
      Reporter: collects group answers and reports back to class on how they would answer the investigative questions. **Distribute one additional blank Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF, 79 KB) to each reporter.
    • Direct each reporter to put the group’s answers near the posted copy of the image analyzed.
  4. After each group posts its analysis, give them a copy of “Picture Writing” (PDF, 345 KB), “Manuscript Book” (PDF, 333 KB), or “The Printing Press” (PDF, 365 KB) to analyze. Distribute additional copies of the blank Primary Source Analysis Tool (PDF, 79 KB) as needed. Facilitators, guides, and reporters may keep or change their roles during the second analysis. Again, have each reporter put the group’s answers near the posted copy of the image analyzed. (Teacher option: as groups finish, allow students to read other groups’ posted answers.)
  5. Reconvene the whole class. Have reporters share group findings and evidence to support each group’s answers to the investigative questions. Record students’ ideas under the image of each painting on the board or chart paper.
  6. With direction from students, place the paintings in chronological order at the front of the room.
    • Have students respond to the question: “What story from the past did Alexander tell?” Discuss.
    • How does seeing the whole series change how they think about the investigative questions?
    • Explain that Alexander’s title is The Evolution of the Book and ask: “Why do you think this was an appropriate theme for the new library building?” Discuss. (The United States Congress had built a grand new building for its library. The library was intended to provide materials on every field of human knowledge. Alexander’s mural images show a timeline of human communication from prehistory to the invention of the printing press.)

Activity Two (One Class Period)

  1. To enhance students’ skills in visual analysis, introduce them to some of the concepts and tools of art and design, while exploring images from the Library’s online collections. Start by presenting the class with the following investigative question (display or write on board): What techniques did the artist use to communicate his or her message? Tell the class that the creator of an image has a number of tools he or she can use to communicate a message, including perspective, emphasis, movement and proportion.
  2. Show the “Manzanar Relocation Center, California” photo.
    • Ask students to describe Ansel Adams’ use of perspective in this photograph. (Students may name objects in the background/foreground of the image; telephone poles and trees larger in front and smaller in the distance.) Trace the perspective lines over the image if it is projected on a white board or overhead projector.
      Note: If necessary, have younger students explore the concept of perspective first with the following exercise:
      • Draw a rectangle that is longer on the top and bottom than on the sides. Draw a line in the middle of the rectangle from the left side to the right side to represent the horizon in a landscape. Draw two lines from the bottom left and right corners that meet in the middle of the horizon line. Have students imagine that this is like a road disappearing into the horizon. Objects or people that are closer on the road will appear to be larger; when they are farther away on the road, they are smaller. This is called perspective.
      • Ask students what they think Ansel Adams emphasized: What is large in the picture? What is small? What do you think was important to the photographer?
      • Does anything in this picture have a sense of movement?
  3. Show “Roy Takeno reading paper in front of office” by Ansel Adams. Explain that this is a picture of World War II era Japanese internment camps for Japanese-American citizens.
    • Ask students to describe Ansel Adams’ use of perspective in this photograph. (Students may name objects in the background/foreground of the image; telephone lines disappearing into the horizon; smaller people in the distance.)
    • Ask students to describe the use of emphasis in this photo. “What statement do you think Mr. Adams is making by the arrangement of objects and people in this photograph? Think about emphasis.” (Emphasis is on Mr. Takeno, a prisoner.)
    • Ask students, “What message do you think Mr. Adams might be conveying by the arrangement of objects and people in this photograph? Think about perspective and emphasis.”
    • Ask students what they observe and think about the sign above Mr. Takeno. What questions does this photo raise?
  4. Show the image of Washington , D.C. under attack by British military forces in 1814.
    • Have students identify examples of movement in this work. (Answers might include fire, clouds of smoke moving across the image, and American and British figures engaged in fighting or surrender)
    • Ask students, “How does the use of movement make you feel as a viewer?”
  5. Distribute one copy of the “Thinking About Images” graphic organizer (PDF, 54 KB) to each student. Draw or project an image of the graphic organizer on the board, and fill it in with student responses during the following discussion. Ask students to record their responses on their individual graphic organizers.
    • Display “National Archives.”
    • Ask students to describe what they observe about the perspective. (Possible answers include: statue in foreground; Capitol building in background)
    • Ask students what they think about these observations. (e.g.: The statue seems more important to the photographer; the eagle is a symbol of America).
    • Ask students what questions this raises about the use of perspective that might help them understand the meaning, and what questions they might ask the photographer. (e.g.: Why is the eagle so large? Why are we looking at the back of the eagle?)
    • Ask students to make observations about the emphasis used by the photographer. (e.g.: the eagle is emphasized, the Capitol building is smaller, the space between those two things is great)
    • Ask students what they think about these observations. (e.g.: the photographer has given meaning to the photograph through the emphasis on the eagle)
    • Ask, “What question(s) do you have about the photographer’s emphasis?” (e.g.: Why does the eagle seem important? What does the eagle represent?)
    • Ask students to make observations about proportion in the photograph. “What is large in this picture?
    • What is small?” (e.g., large eagle sculpture on the roof of the Archives building; the Capitol building looks proportionally much smaller)
    • Ask students what they think about these observations.
    • Ask what questions these observations raise.
    • Have students pair up to complete the last row of the graphic organizer.
    • Reconvene the class and share some of the responses.
    • Discuss: “What techniques did the artist use to communicate his message?”
    • Ask students how the photographer’s message might be different if the photo had been taken from the Capitol looking toward the National Archives building.


  • Ask students to reflect on how they currently communicate with their friends and create a seventh panel for Alexander’s mural. Have them use perspective and one other art technique (movement, proportion or emphasis) in their design.
  • Have students predict changes in human communication one hundred years into the future, and then create an eighth panel for the mural showing those changes.
  • Practice primary source analysis with other types of documents. Sources related to the content of this lesson:
  • Have the class discuss point of view as you display each of the Alexander mural images. “Alexander was an artist living during the 19th century, yet he was depicting scenes from throughout the history of human beings. What are the men doing in these pictures? What are the women doing?”
    • What differences do you see between the kinds of activities men are shown doing and the kinds of activities women are shown doing? What do you know about women’s activities in each of these time periods?
    • Why do you think Alexander showed men and women in this way in his paintings?
  • Provide the following writing prompt: “Think about what a future historian would be able to know about you from a painting about your life. Now, think about all the things this historian would NOT be able to tell about you. What questions might the historian ask about you? What would you want the historian to know about you?”

Lesson Evaluation

  • Teacher observation of student individual and group work.
  • Visual source analysis: students demonstrate thinking about paintings, and extend that thinking during group work.
  • Primary sources: students understand that the paintings reflect the point of view of the artist.
  • Graphic organizers: students successfully use graphic organizers to record and synthesize information and present a hypothesis.