Library of Congress and Teaching With Primary Sources

Written by Jennifer Boren

With the adoption of new Social Studies standards the summer of 2017, students in Tennessee are increasingly called to research and investigate in order to make connections between the past and the present. Each course and grade level are organized by themes which are further broken down by content strands and SSPs (social studies practices). The SSPs increase in rigor as students progress through the grades, but one thing is consistent across all grade levels: students are to required to not only answer questions, but they must develop questions to guide their own inquiry process.

Critical thinking and questioning is not a one-time event in the classroom, as has been the case with traditional research projects. Students should be engaged in the inquiry cycle throughout the school year, and the new standards stipulate the key to success is analyzing primary and secondary sources.

Last summer, I was selected to participate in the Library of Congress Teaching With Primary Sources Summer Institute. In late June, I traveled to Washington D.C. alongside educators and librarians from all over the United States, to dive into the biggest collection of primary sources in the world. With six different locations around the world, the Library of Congress adds more than 10,000 new items to the collection every day! Yes – they still use the main card catalog which is housed underground in the Jefferson building!

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Much like Nicolas Cage in the movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets, institute participants put on their detective hats to use primary sources to crack open mysteries of the past. Over the course of the week, we developed primary source unit plans related to our standards, took behind-the-scenes tours of the Library of Congress, met with rare book experts, and even researched in the library’s main reading room. Each day experts from the Learning and Innovation Office immersed us in hands-on activities and lessons, modeling best practices for analyzing primary sources. By the fifth day of the institute, we each had developed at least one primary source activity plan, that we then brought back to our schools to implement with our students. Participants also have the option to pursue graduate credit in history through George Mason University.

During a meeting with a rare children’s book expert, I was able to examine alphabet books from the Civil War. Immediately I knew I wanted to share these with my students because our new standards call students to compare and contrast multiple sources about one event (SSP.03). Students were instantly drawn to these photos and they were a great conversation starter. In case you are wondering, rare book experts at the LOC no longer wear gloves! They have found wearing gloves actually damages and tears items more, so now they use their own clean, bare hands!

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What does a Primary Source Activity Plan look like?

Over the course of my week, I was able to develop two PSAPs to implement with fourth and fifth grade classes and used Nearpod as my delivery tool. We are a 1:1 district in grades 3-12 and each student has access to the Nearpod app. One plan explores the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and the other explores the Lost Colony of Roanoke. The structure of the plans can be applied to any course and grade level.

When developing a primary source activity plan (PSAP), always start with an essential question that is centered on the standards. For example, How did Abraham Lincoln’s assassination impact the United States? After activating prior knowledge and a short formative assessment, students analyze various primary sources. The analyzing part is where students can put on their detective hats. Give them time to quietly study their source and make it fun – let them use magnifiers to study the sources! Magnifiers are a simple but engaging tool to draw students (big and small) into the lesson. I used the jigsaw method where students are responsible for studying one source, then they are divided up into new groups to teach other students about their source. This is an effective way to cover more content, especially if you have short blocks of time. Plus, the students become the teachers and you can focus on facilitating the lesson!

After taking time to analyze the sources, students responded to their sources using the LOC Primary Source Analysis Tool; observe, reflect, and question. This can certainly be done with paper and pencil, orally with younger grades, or with Nearpod, it can be delivered with the Collaborate Board! The Library of Congress offers analysis tools for many types of primary sources, including political cartoons, sheet music, maps, and even sound recordings.  If you have never considered professional development with the Library of Congress, make this the year to do so! The institute was hands-down the best professional development I have ever received and was a highlight of my career!

Where can I access resources for Primary Source Activity Plans?

  • Library of Congress Primary Source Sets are collections of primary sources centered around popular topics in history. You can access primary source sets here.
  • Library of Congress lesson plans are teacher-created lesson plans that use primary sources from the many LOC collections. You can access lesson plans here.
  • Themed Resources feature special exhibitions, presentations, and materials gathered from the Library of Congress. You can access themed resources here.
  • Presentations and activities are ready-made collections students can use to investigate curricular themes. You can access presentations and activities here.
  • Library of Congress Student Discovery Sets are available for free in the Apple iBooks store. Each book set features historical documents and primary sources, interactive tools, and is intended for open-ended primary source analysis by students. You can access Student Discovery Sets here.

How do I apply?

This summer, the Library of Congress will offer three Teaching With Primary Sources Institute weeks and the application deadline is March 10, 2019:

  • Open Sessions (any subject area): July 8-12; July 29-Aug 2, 2019
  • Science, Technology, and Engineering Focus: July 15-19, 2019
  • For more information or to apply, go here.

In addition, they are now offering a multi-day primary source workshop specifically for library media specialists. This workshop will emphasize supporting inquiry and research strategies and how these strategies apply to their school library.

  • June 19-June 21, 2019
  • Application deadline is February 22, 2019
  • Fore more information or to apply, go here.

Participants must apply to be accepted into the programs. In addition to basic information, the application requires short responses as well as a letter of support from a school administrator or supervisor. The workshops are free of charge to educators and librarians. However, it should be noted that the LOC does not cover related travel or expenses. Pending funding, lunch and breakfast may be provided.

Jennifer Boren is the Library Media Specialist at Bailey Station Elementary School. She also serves as the lead librarian for Collierville Schools. Jennifer writes for Memphis Parent Magazine and when she has time, blogs about her favorite books at



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