History: Mining for Gold in a Mountain of Resources

June 1, 2000

At Dow High School in Midland, MI, students in Michael Federspiel's social studies class pore over congressional transcripts from a 1913 water rights hearing involving Yosemite National Park. At Williamsburg Middle School in Arlington, VA, students analyze dozens of Civil War photographs by Matthew Brady. And at University Library High in Champaign, IL, students examine oral histories of Depression-era immigrants.

Thanks to the American Memory collections, the Library of Congress's new online archive (, students from all parts of the country and at all grade levels are working with the raw material of U.S. history right at their desktops. American Memory comprises more than 40 primary-source archives, each including thousands of documents, photographs, pamphlets, films, and audio recordings from U.S. history and culture.

An abundance, even an anarchy, of sources and material are now available on the Web, and teachers and students need whole new sets of skills to use the material in meaningful ways. To help teachers and librarians use these new resources effectively, the Education Development Center (EDC) and the Library of Congress have developed the American Memory Fellows Program (AMF), a national staff development project. The program brings together 25 teams of middle and high school educators each year to develop, test, and publish innovative classroom activities that use online primary-source collections.

The program has three phases. During a six-week online orientation in late spring, Fellows get to know one another, and the digital collections, through Web-based activities and discussions. At the week-long AMF Summer Institute in Washington, DC, in July, Fellows immerse themselves in the collections, explore methods of inquiry using primary documents, and design their own humanities lesson. During the following school year, the Fellows test and revise the lessons in their own classrooms. Through the use of electronic portfolios, they share and reflect on their developing expertise with colleagues online.

The project emerged from classroom research in which we at EDC found that students who use primary sources exhibit more of the traits we associate with good historical thinking: they pose questions, observe details, and speculate about context-about what was going on behind the documents. For both teachers and students, the Web broadened access to primary sources enormously. But we also discovered that using digital archives poses new problems. In the past, experts such as librarians, textbook publishers, and professional historians filtered out bad, irrelevant material. The new media have done an end-run around the experts.

The result is a wider, richer, and more varied universe of information-oral histories of the Depression, discussions of Toni Morrison's novels-but also dubious offerings of cultural trivia, advertising, and sex. More than ever, teachers and students need help sorting out which online material is relevant, how to locate and evaluate useful texts, and how to apply what they have found to their questions or problems.

Working with American Memory, teachers learn that the criteria for valuable humanities resources include authenticity and open-endedness. Do the resources give students access to voices, perspectives, and conflicts that can deepen their understanding of a historical or cultural phenomenon? Do they encourage students to be active interpreters and meaning-makers? Yet even when digital resources are authentic and open-ended, like those in American Memory's primary source archives, their sheer volume and variety require new skills.

One of AMF's goals is to build "information literacy." First, Fellows learn how to navigate the Web to find materials-to use search engines to find relevant documents. Second, they practice evaluation skills: Where did this document come from? Can I rely on it? How useful is it to my purposes?

Teachers can bring those skills back to their classrooms. For example, middle school students often approach Civil War photos looking for images of life and death on the battlefield. They are often surprised to find the battlefields are strangely empty. Why? Linking to background information on the collection, they learn that Matthew Brady's cameras were too cumbersome to allow the kind of journalistic coverage we now expect. They do find plenty of pictures of the aftermath of battle, including famous images of Confederate dead at Gettysburg, Antietam, and elsewhere, with captions like "Bodies of Confederate dead gathered for burial." What do these images say about the war and how it was fought? Again, students must consult the background information to discover that most of the photos were taken by photographers sympathetic to the Union cause. Thus, while the pictures faithfully portray battlefield details (dress, weaponry, landscape), students see that they also narrate a particular perspective-that Confederate soldiers died in vain.

Evaluation skills are especially important when teachers and students deal with historical archives. Often unedited, they let students see the ugly side of U.S. history, including racist and sexist language in political pamphlets and newspapers, for example. Many teachers are not adept at talking about these sensitive issues in class. So they need skills for teaching students ways to approach this material with a critical eye.

As teachers develop information literacy, they become able to do some filtering by assembling well-chosen sets of materials to suit their pedagogical aims. For example, at Pleasant Valley High School in Chico, CA, social science teacher Brett Silva has set up a historical role-play for his students involving a provocative set of primary sources from the 19th century. The students are asked to mediate a Texas land dispute between Native Americans and white settlers. The primary source documents present the issue from an Indian perspective, a white perspective, and a 19th-century Quaker perspective. Brett uses Web resources to help his students understand that human history reflects multiple points of view. He invites his students to see how the world was-and how it might have been different.

Originally published in Harvard Education Letter

American Memory Fellows Program (AMF), Library of Congress, 101 Independence Ave. S.E., Washington, DC 20540; 202-707-5000. AMF teaching units created by Fellows can be viewed at


Melissa Burns