Intern Lesson: Who Knew Analyzing Primary Sources Could Be So Exciting?

This is a guest post by Arline Troncoza, who worked this spring with the education team at the Library of Congress as part of the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) Internship Program.

As the end of my internship draws near and I look back at all I have learned, one thing sticks out: I have been surprised by how exciting analyzing primary sources can be. I watched as teachers at our workshops sat with images in front of them, and their facial expressions went from an initial blank stare to expressions of full engagement and wonder as they looked at every detail of an image to answer questions like: What is the image trying to convey? Why? Who created it? In groups, the teachers became excited students working together to analyze an image.

“Carrying-in” boy in Alexandria Glass Factory, Alexandria, Va. Works on day shift one week and night shift next week.

I saw this same response when two high school students were given this image to analyze. They, too, had the initial blank bored stare. When the image was paired with the Primary Source Analysis Tool, the students became engaged in the process and the more details they observed in the image, the more they wanted to know why. Why was this factory so dirty? Why were these young boys working in it? Who made this image? Why was this image created? The students came up with possible answers and most of their reflections about the images were accurate. Like the teachers at the workshops, observations about the image generated questions, and the more questions they produced, the more engaged they became.

A Woman Dropping Her Tea-cup in Horror upon Discovering the Monstrous Contents of a Magnified Drop of Thames Water Revealing the Impurity of London Drinking Water

I experienced this when I participated in the webinar Free Primary Sources from the World Digital Library. Glancing at this image – which has now become my favorite –  you may think that it is from a children’s book, but when you look closer you realize it is much more. During the webinar we considered questions like: What do you observe in the image? What do you wonder about this image? What kind of facial expression is on the woman’s face? Why do you think she is making that expression? The more ideas we came up with about this image, the more details we noticed. Through the process of observing, reflecting and questioning, all of us participating in the webinar formed ideas of why and for whom this image was made. We finally read the bibliographic description, and we discovered that our inferences were actually pretty accurate.

Primary sources can engage all groups from K-12 students, to college students and teachers. I have learned that an image is not just an illustration; through the process of analyzing so much can be learned. It is easy to give someone an image and let them learn about it by reading a caption, but it is much more memorable and to support them to digest every detail of the image and connect ideas to formulate their own interpretation first.



The Great Gatsby: Establishing the Historical Context with Primary Sources

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the current Library of Congress Teacher in Residence. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby is one of the most often taught in American literature classes. However, the further we move away chronologically from 1922,  a time of economic boom following the devastation of World War I, the less […]

Electricity and Primary Sources: Engaging Second Graders

This post is by Rebecca Newland, the current Library of Congress Teacher in Residence. A colleague and I were recently invited into a classroom at The River School in Washington, D.C., which provides “educational experiences for children and their families uniting the best practices of early childhood education and oral deaf education.” We visited to […]

“What Do Scientists Do?” Seeking Answers in the Alexander Graham Bell Papers at the Library of Congress

What do scientists do? This simple prompt was central in one activity during the inaugural week-long Seminar for Science Educators held at the Library this summer. Twenty-five educators examined primary sources, and one secondary source, from the Library’s collections to generate possible answers.

Back to School with Primary Sources: A Primer from the Library of Congress

Welcome (or welcome back!) to Teaching with the Library of Congress, where we hope you discover and discuss the most effective techniques for using Library of Congress primary sources in the classroom. We invite readers to engage with topics ranging from What Makes a Primary Source a Primary Source? to what’s happening “next month in history?” Here are staff picks for places to start – or continue – teaching with primary sources.