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A preservation box sits on top of a map next to a magnifying glass. The box is decorated with black and white images and a newspaper clip. It has text saying "What's the history of my hometown?," "Discover Photos!" and "Read Newspapers."
An interactive primary source box created by spring 2023 AHHA intern Charlotte Orekhov, featuring materials from students who investigated the national impact of their hometown's history, out for testing in the Young Readers Center-Programs Lab. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Ezell)

What’s the History of my Hometown? Activities & Collections to Explore

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This post was written by Charlotte Orekhov, a graduate student at George Washington University and fall 2023 participant in the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced (AHHA) internship program at the Library of Congress.

Have you ever wondered what impact your state, or even your town, has made on the nation? Do you know how your community came to be the way it is today? During my internship, I developed content for The Source, an educational research studio that will open at the Library in the next few years. The Source will feature real-life stories of researchers who used Library of Congress collections. This fall, I met students who were investigating the national impact of their hometown’s history while participating in the National Council for History Education (NCHE)’s The Rural Experience in America Project funded by a grant from the Library’s Teaching With Primary Sources (TPS) program. The ways that they explored the Library’s collection to find their own local history can be repeated by families everywhere.

Maps

Cooper and Sam are high school juniors who began their research by looking at Sanborn Maps of their rural town of Cuba, Illinois online. The Library holds a large collection of these fire insurance maps from the 19th and 20th century. These maps of cities across the United States show details and materials of each building in a town. Cooper and Sam were surprised to see on this map from 1909 that there were more businesses than in the current day. “It’s really sad to see the impact of businesses leaving,” said Cooper, “because it means that people are leaving as well.” As their interests were piqued, Sam and Cooper continued their exploration of their town’s history, investigating why a local school had closed, exploring local archives, and interviewing community members. “You can see a simple story in something, it doesn’t even have to be something with a lot of details, but it can lead you to wonder,” said Cooper.

Sanborn Fire Map from Cuba, Fulton County, Illinois, which displays each building in the area color-coding the building types, c. 1909
This is a Sanborn Fire Map from Cuba, Fulton County, Illinois, which displays each building in the area color-coding the building types, c. 1909. (Sanborn Maps, Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress).

With your children, we invite you to explore some of the same sources from the Library, such as the Sanborn Maps Navigator. Look for your hometown first. If you’re unable to find it you could search for your city or county. Or, use the rest of the map collections to find your home.

Some discussion questions to share as you look at the maps:

  • What do you notice about the map?
  • What seems strange or unfamiliar?
  • How does this map compare to current maps of your hometown? For example, how do the number of businesses compare—are there more or fewer?
  • What do you wonder about the things you see on this map?

Photos

Several students I talked to really connected with the photographs in our collections. Georgia third grader Christian was excited to find that former President Jimmy Carter was also from a small rural town in the same state. “One day when I grow up,” said Christian, “I could also become president!”

Former President Jimmy Carter and his late wife, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter sit on chairs in their hometown church with two parishioners standing next to them posing for a photo.
Former President Jimmy Carter and his late wife, former First Lady Rosalynn Carter, often attended church in their hometown of Plains, Georgia. Following each Sunday school lesson, they would greet parishioners who wished to be photographed with them. Photograph by Carol Highsmith, 2017. (Carol Highsmith Archive, Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress).

Meanwhile, Arkansas seventh grader Melanie compared old photographs from her hometown to how events and areas appear today. As she looked at a photograph of a festival she found in the Library’s Prints and Photographs Division, she noted how much more diverse her community has become. Kentucky eighth grader Kaitlyn spent her time looking at photographs from World War II to see how her town participated in the war effort. “It’s important to look at these and understand how lives were changed in the process of these events,” said Kaitlyn, “If we don’t learn about significant events, then they will be lost forever, and it’s our job to remember this as the new generation.”

Black and white image of three boys hauling a cart of items in their yard. One boy is leaned over in front of the cart walking backwards while the other two boys are looking forward at the camera.
This photograph was discussed by the middle school class in Ashland, Kentucky as they researched their hometown, c. 1942. (Farm Security Administration, Office of War Information Photograph Collection, Library of Congress).

What will you find out about your hometown history in our Photos, Prints, and Drawings collections? Type in your hometown to the search bar, or explore the many collections listed. Or, you could explore the digital collections in the American Folklife Center’s Research Guides, which allow you to search state-by-state.

As you look at photographs, ask your family:

  • Describe what you see, including any people, places, or objects shown.
  • What’s happening in the image? When do you think it was made?
  • If you know the location where the picture was taken, what looks different? What looks the same?
  • What are you wondering about the photograph?

Interviews

Many young people I spoke with began their investigation in the collections, and then interviewed people in their community to learn more about their hometown history. Georgia eleventh grader Amarah read some of the recorded oral histories in the Federal Writers’ Project collection, which inspired her to interview her own community members and family. She said, “I think collecting these local stories, particularly interviews, is a great way to create a bridge between generations. I’m so excited to interview my mom, and to be able to connect to her history and gain a new understanding.”

Two men sitting on a poarch takling with recording equipment and microphones. The younger man is looking at the older man who is speaking and holding a wooden cane while leaning back in his chair.
This photo of Jesse Hatcher was taken from our American Folklife Center, demonstrating interviews of the Blue Ridge Parkway region like the one linked below, c. 1978. (Blue Ridge Parkway Folklife Project, American Folklife Center, Library of Congress).

We encourage you to listen to this short interview about dances, from the American Folklife Center collection as an example of an impactful oral history. I especially enjoyed the conversation between minute marks 2:10 and 5:05.

In addition to listening to oral histories in the Library’s collection, you can interview each other! Use this resource from The American Folklife Center and this blog post about family history to conduct your own interview with family members.

Newspapers

Audrey and a few of her friends were especially proud of the way their North Carolina hometown made national news. The court case, Griggs vs. Duke Power, originated in their county. Black employees of the Duke Power Company claimed that the company was administering tests for placement within the company or promotions that discriminated against Black employees, while white employees were more likely to receive higher paying jobs. Eventually, the case made it all the way to the Supreme Court, changing the laws around equity in the workplace for all Americans. How has your local history impacted national history? You can look up your community in Chronicling America, a Library of Congress resource that provides access to select digitized newspaper pages, to see how your hometown has made the news.

Guided by teacher Valencia Abbott, Audrey and her classmates helped erect historical markers throughout Rockingham County, North Carolina.

Activity

After you research your community’s history, create your own historical marker about your town like Audrey and her fellow students did. Maybe you found something in the collections and resources linked above, or you want to commemorate something about your own family or community.

James Forten historical marker in front of a brick home in Philadelphia reading "James Forten (1766-1842) A wealthy sailmaker who employed multi-racial craftsmen. Forten was a leader of the African-American community in Philadelphia and a champion of reform causes. The American Antislavery Society was organized in his house here in1833."
As an example, this is a historical marker from Philadelphia which commemorates the African-American community leader James Forten. (Visual Materials from the Rosa Parks Papers, Library of Congress).

Try writing three sentences about your monument to describe:

  1. What is this monument about? What does it look like or show?
  2. Why did you choose to make a monument about that piece of your history?
  3. Why do you want others to know about it?

You could draw a monument or plaque or get even more creative building something together. What do you want others to know about your local history?

If you come to visit the Library of Congress, make sure to come check out the interactive research box I created to elevate the voices of these young people who studied their own local history. We are testing out materials for The Source in the Young Readers Center-Programs Lab over the next few months, and my box will be out for young visitors to learn from the experiences of youth researchers.

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