Teaching with Primary Sources and the Library of Congress

A few weeks ago librarians converged upon Philadelphia, PA for the American Library Association (ALA) Midwinter conference. It was great to reconnect with colleagues from around the country, I made good progress on my committee work, and I was able to attend some interesting discussion groups.

Another highlight for me came from the Library of Congress, which had a booth in the vender area and hosted a series of short presentations throughout each day. This is where I met Cheryl Lederle-Ensign, Educational Resource Specialist at the LOC, and attended her presentation, “Layer After Layer of Awesome”: The Teaching with Primary Sources Program.  In addition to digitizing a wealth of historical documents and images for easy online access, the good folks at the LOC also want to support teachers in using these online resources. Cheryl and her colleagues have curated digital collections into themes, written lesson plans and teaching aids, and also sponsor professional development for elementary and secondary teachers.

I introduced myself to Cheryl before the presentation began, and her enthusiasm was infectious; she was so pleased I had arrived specifically for her talk. Several school librarians were also in attendance, and while they had plenty of questions during the session, I remained quiet and took notes. At the end, as the others gathered their things to leave, Cheryl thanked me for sitting through the whole presentation, perhaps thinking I wasn’t her target audience but had been too polite to leave early.

On the contrary, I insisted. The wealth of materials the Library of Congress has assembled to help elementary and secondary teachers integrate primary sources into their teaching are based on the same pedagogical scholarship and goals that informs my current efforts with undergraduate history students. Freshmen and sophomores are not so different from high school juniors and seniors, and university professors who assume their undergraduates already know how to analyze and incorporate primary sources in their writing are likely to be disappointed with the results.  Cheryl and I chatted about pedagogy in history teaching, and I learned that much of the LOC’s education outreach is built on the scholarship of Sam Wineburg and his colleagues; Wineburg’s Stanford History Education Group is also a member of the LOC’s Teaching with Primary Sources Consortium. Cheryl was very interested to hear about my experiments in library instruction in our new history methods course, and was glad to hear that my teaching methods are also based on Wineburg’s pedagogy.

Cheryl and I agreed that the responsibility for teaching students to analyze and think critically about historical documents, images, and artifacts belongs to educators at all levels. The Teacher Resources that Cheryl and her colleagues have assembled, while marketed to K-12 teachers, provide us all with valuable pedagogical support for that mission. Librarians and archivists in higher education should engage with the teaching materials that accompany the Library of Congress’s online collections, and work to incorporate not just the collections, but also the pedagogical theory and practice of teaching with primary sources in our work with students and faculty.


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