Resources for Visual Sources: Using Library of Congress Archives in the Classroom

| August 20, 2012

This guide was created by Anne Hays and Leanora Lange for Alexander Pope and Timothy Patterson’s course “Visual Sources: Using Library of Congress Archives in the Classroom.”


LoC American Memory Collections

Classroom Materials at the LoC

Using the LoC Digital Archives Creatively

Other Collections

Visiting an Archive in Person

Rural school near Osnabrock, North Dakota. Fred Hultstrand History in Pictures Collection, NDIRS-NDSU, Fargo.

Library of Congress American Memory Collections


American Memory homepage

First-person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920

The Northern Great Plains, 1880-1920

Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Railroad Maps Collection


The LoC American Memory collections offer browsing and keyword search options. For a detailed overview of how to navigate through the collections, see the Loc American Memory search tips.

Here are some other helpful tips for navigating the collections:

The collections are organized by Library of Congress Subject Headings. These subject headings are a controlled vocabulary of subject matter maintained by the Library of Congress and used in essentially every library in the U.S. and many abroad. They enable standardized, consistent, and easier description and access to materials within and across collections and institutions. However, they are not always intuitive (e.g. they use “motion pictures” for films and “Middle West” for the Midwest). If you’re not interested in browsing patiently through subject headings, your best bet is to search by keywords. If you’re curious to know more, check out the resources below:

Boolean searching (connecting search terms with “and,” “or,” or “not”) does not function in the keyword search option. Instead, these common words are ignored.

Do not use quotation marks,  asterisks (*), or letters with accents and other non-English letters when searching collections.


Special Presentations can be found about halfway down the collection’s homepage. These condensed pockets of information highlight each collections’ main themes and could be worked into lessons in a multitude of ways.

When you click on a resource of interest, don’t miss out on the summary, usually listed about halfway down the resource’s page. The summary functions like a small encyclopedia entry on the author or subject of the resource and often offers one or two bibliographic sources for further consultation.

If you are searching through a photograph collection, use the gallery view to make browsing easier. Check out this example from the Fred Hulstrand History in Pictures Collection.

Finally, be aware that you may come across different websites holding the same collections. For example, the Documenting the American South collection is held at the University of North Carolina (UNC), and many of the LoC links will take you to the UNC site.

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Classroom Materials at the Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has developed a site specifically designed for teachers and devoted to classroom materials: The Library of Congress Teachers site.

This site offers a wealth of resources for teachers including ready-made lessons plans, presentations, activities, and primary resources grouped by theme. Here are links to a few useful features:

  1. See the guide to using primary source material in the classroom.
  2. Use their search to find curriculum materials by state, grade, and subject.
  3. Browse classroom materials by topic, era, or in alphabetical order.
  4. Check out the professional development resources.
  5. Get a grant to help support the use of primary resources in your classroom.

Using the Library of Congress Digital Archives Creatively

Teju Cole, author of OPEN CITY, has been using the Library of Congress Historical Newspaper Collection to create daily tweets reflecting accounts of murder and mayhem from exactly one hundred years ago. He collects these “news of the weird” tidbits on his Twitter feed.

PS: Cole’s book is available from Butler stacks: PR9387.9.C67 O64 2011

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Other Digital Collections

There are numerous digital archives that you can visit online, many of which also offer teaching aids to help educators use their archive materials in your classroom. Whether you use their existing educational models or not, you can certainly generate ideas from their lesson plans, or simply develop your own using these fantastic digital archives.


National Archives (NARA) :

The National Archives are quite simply “the nation’s record keeper.” They famously hold documents such as the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. (Those major documents are held at the DC branch—the MD office holds 2 million cubic feet of materials!) They also hold military records, immigration records, land records, the US census data, genealogical data, and more. The digital collections are a way for users around the country to access their materials from the comfort of the classroom.

DocsTeach is a new software developed by NARA specifically to assist social studies teachers in using these collections in their classroom. There are three ways to use this software:

  1. Explore their vast ready-made collections developed around time periods in our nation’s history and develop a plan on the fly or create a plan ahead of time in your own style.
  2. Use their ready-made lesson plans created around the above-mentioned collections. Within each collection there are a series of different lesson plan approaches, all developed by NARA.
  3. Use their software to place images you’ve stored in folders into their lesson-plan templates. There are a variety of template styles for you to choose from. You need to set up an account with them to use this option.


What’s here: in an effort to “make history come alive” the NYHS offers curriculum related kits to help teachers use their digital collections in the classroom.  Staged as a series of exhibits, their lesson plans align with the New York State Learning Standards.

New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War

Covers the contentious divide in NYS over slavery and the Civil War through images, documents, maps, letters, and text, with accompanying lesson plans designed using their materials. They provide an overall lesson plan by PDF, as well as lessons by unit.

For a structured approach: The exhibit is broken down in multiple ways, including sections on Pro-South NY, Fighting Slavery, and Civil War. These are structured narratives already put together by the NYH for you to share with your students.

For a less structured approach, they also break up the materials by people, places, and documents, which each contain images and accompanying texts.

In their own words: “This is not the American history that our grandparents learned in school. Exciting new discoveries and new questions asked by recent generations of scholars have upended our understanding of the national past, including that of New York City and State,” says James O. Horton, the chief historian of the exhibition.

Alexander Hamilton

This is both an exhibition and a database of original documents (digitized, of course). This exhibition is an excellent example of a non-linear learning platform, where students can learn by seeing visual accompaniments to textual historical notes, but because the site guides its viewers through history through components one can click at will and in any order, it offers a model for a non-textbook approach for students who have trouble learning linearly.

The exhibit includes various approaches to understanding Hamilton:

There’s also a document database if you are looking for something specific and want to do a search. However, another way of approaching this collection is to scour through the entire contents, HERE.

And if all of this isn’t a tidy enough package, they have put together pdf documents with lesson plans specifically for teachers using this collection.

IF YOU ARE HUNGRY FOR MORE here is a list of archives local to the New York City:


New York Historical Society Curriculum Library (Coordinated with the NYS teaching standards, and include lesson plans)

National Archives Docs Teach (Ready-made lesson plans, collections by theme to build your own lesson plans around, and software that allows you to build a lesson plan online.)

National Archives at New York City Educational Materials (This is the local arm of the National Archives. View specific lesson plans and collections from the local branch here in NYC.)

New York City Department of Records Digital Collections (The Municipal Archives collects office records, manuscript material, still and moving images, ledger volumes, vital records, maps, blueprints, and sound recordings from the NYC municipal government starting in 1950 through the present. The digital archives makes available 870,000 items from their vast physical collection.)

Nueva York Classroom Materials (A guide to using the Nueva York exhibit from the New York Historical Society, which explores New York’s history with Spain and Latin America from 1613-1945.)

NYPL digital library (A fairly astonishing array of digitized collections from the NYPL.)

Museum of the City of New York Collections portal (The digital collection of the Museum of the City of New York, now containing over 100,000 images.)


Brooklyn Historical Society Classroom Kits (Curriculum kits, curriculum guides, and downloadable lesson plans to the BHS’s exhibits, featuring their historical archives.)

Brooklyn Museum (A portal to the Brooklyn Museum digital collection, organized by type of art. They also feature an education link providing educational materials.)

Brooklyn Public Library Digital Collections (Digitized historical materials including photograph galleries, playbills, children’s books, and a guide to the civil war collection, which includes lesson plans.)

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Visiting an Archive in Person

You may also be  interested in visiting an archive in person for personal research or as a field trip with your students. If you already know of an archive you’d like to visit, go ahead and contact them directly to set up a visit. Be aware, however, that archives’ policies vary concerning visitors and access to certain collections.

There are several options for locating where a collection of interest to you might be held.

  1. Look at bibliographies or lists of references in work relevant to your research or interests.
  2. Ask librarians or archivists working in your area where local archives are held.
  3. Search online for specific people, places, or topics.
  • WorldCat (short for “world catalog”) is the world’s largest network of library content. It aggregates information about collections from thousands of libraries across the globe. To search specifically for archival materials, do an advanced search and choose “archival materials” as the format.
  • ArchiveGrid is run by the same organization that runs Worldcat and extracts descriptions of archival materials from the Worldcat and elsewhere on the web. Its search allows you to search not only for collection titles and descriptors, but also for individual items within a collection.
  • ArchiveFinder covers thousands of archives in the U.S. and U.K.
  • ArchivesWiki is run by the American Historical Association and thus has a strong focus on American history.

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