Using Digital Archives to Support Historical Thinking -- Picturing Modern America

July 1, 2002

photograph depicted electric lamped street circa 1900The growing richness of online digital archives such as the Library of Congress' American Memory collections highlights one of the most vital educational opportunities available through the World Wide Web. Learning activities that allow students to grapple with the primary materials in these archives can engage student interest, build historical thinking skills, and deepen understanding of history and culture. Yet most teachers and students have little experience working with primary documents and need help to approach them in ways that historians do. To address this challenge, CCT developed a series of Web-based tools and inquiry guides and a Web site, Picturing Modern America, where these resources and instructions on how to use these resources reside.

Funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Picturing Modern America project sought to help middle and high school students and their teachers take advantage of existing digital archives to conduct historical inquiries in a range of topics related to the building of modern America (1880 to 1920). The historical developments that students will investigate through document-based exercises include: changes in the nature of work, in forms of leisure and style, in the physical landscape, in childhood, and in the distribution of wealth, all accompanying rapid industrialization, immigration, and the growth of cities.

Edward Curtis Indian Photograph of Chief Joseph and Edmund MeanyThe project built on CCT's more than six years of work with the Library of Congress helping teachers use online archives of primary source materials in their humanities classrooms. We initially used the Library of Congress' American Memory collections, the nation's premier digital library, as the source for primary source materails for our guides. These guides seek to address the core challenge of history teaching and learning: helping students creatively and critically bridge text and context - the essence of historical thinking. They include four types of tools:

  • Document Analysis Guides, which focus learners' attention on the close reading of a single document
  • Inquiry Starters, sample document sets and questions that invite learners to construct provisional contexts for documents, by selecting, arranging, and annotating them
  • Guided Search Activities, in which students use search engines to find patterns in historical data
  • An Exhibit-Maker, which teachers and students can use to create and publish online exhibits that may include their own local materials.

An important feature of each tool is the novice learner's ability to compare his or her own emerging historical interpretations with a growing database of expert and novice interpretations, including those of practicing historians and classroom teachers.