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Our Favorite Posts: Teaching About September 11 Using Primary Sources from Library of Congress

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This timely post was first published in 2011 by Danna Bell of the Library of Congress.

Part of the power of teaching with primary sources comes from their immediacy—eyewitness accounts of historic events can have an emotional impact that secondary sources might lack. This is especially true of primary sources relating to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001.

“Rise above.” By Karen Simon, c2001.

The attacks were so recent, and affected so many people, that the artifacts recording the events are emotionally powerful, and also can be powerful tools for exploring these traumatic events and their lasting effects.

Immediately after the attacks, the Library of Congress took action. On September 12, 2001, it began recording public and private responses to the events, much as the Library had done after the Pearl Harbor attacks in 1941.

The results are collected in the Library’s September 11, 2001, Documentary Project, which provides links to audio, video and text interviews with Americans both at home and abroad about their experiences. Also included are hundreds of photos, drawings and other artistic responses to 9/11, including artworks created by elementary students.

“9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon.” By Carol Highsmith, 2008.

In addition to the materials in the Documentary Project, many more primary sources are available in a Library of Congress online exhibition, Witness and Response: September 11 Acquisitions from the Library of Congress. Digital primary sources have also been preserved in the Library’s September 11, 2001, Web Archive, where where the Library of Congress partnered with a number of other organizations to document the Web response to 9/11.

Teaching Ideas

  • How have people responded to other disasters? Review the taped interviews gathered after the attack on Pearl Harbor and ask students to compare the responses then to the responses to the September 11. Where are there similarities or differences?
  • Think about the varied responses to the September 11 attacks. How are the responses different from responses to other historic events because of access to media and other technological resources?
  • How do eyewitness accounts add to your understanding of what you previously knew about the events of September 11, whether from seeing the events on television, reading about them, or learning about them in school?
  • What do personal accounts reveal about the values of the individuals describing the events of the morning of September 11? How might these values affect the way in which they recall the events? What other factors might affect their recollection of the events?

More Library of Congress Resources

Drawing by an elementary school student, 2001.

The Library’s Today in History presentation for 9/11 will lead you to many other Library of Congress primary sources and teacher resources.

Also, read the comments from our previous post about September 11 to learn how other teachers have used these materials in their teaching.

How do you plan to use primary sources in teaching about September 11?



  1. I thought this was a wonderful article on how the September 11th attacks are used to benefit students with learning about primary sources. I believe elementary students should definitely have all the knowledge possible about the attacks, as well as have the opportunity to hear about/view other sources’ accounts on the matter. This can really develop the feelings and opinions of young minds about terrorism.
    I would certainly consider approaching various lesson plans and activities where the students would be able to choose a primary source (possibly online) that identifies with their personal feelings about the tragedy, and describe these to the class.

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