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Inspiring Research Questions with Library of Congress Primary Sources

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This post is by Rebecca Newland, the Library of Congress 2013-14 Teacher in Residence.

Primary sources from the Library of Congress are powerful tools for engaging students and fostering natural curiosity. You can help students learn to harness that curiosity in ways that will focus and direct research.

Developing research questions has a number of positive outcomes. Students are more likely to:

  • think flexibly about a topic, modifying ideas and focus as they gather more information;
  • delve more deeply into a topic, by exploring possibilities in the formation of questions; and
  • see patterns in the various aspects of a topic that generate questions.
Phot Hanging hooded bodies of the four conspirators
Washington, D.C. Hanging hooded bodies of the four conspirators; crowd departing

Time spent developing questioning skills can offer an opportunity for the librarian to collaborate with the classroom teacher to support students, since this is not an intuitive ability for most students. One approach is to begin with a single primary source item, allowing time for students to observe it, to reflect on what’s happening or why the item is important, and to ask questions prompted by the item. Next, add additional items and support deeper inquiry. Here’s an example using primary sources related to Abraham Lincoln’s assassination.

Present a primary source item such as this photograph of the hanging of the conspirators in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. Invite students to speculate about the context of the photograph using the Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool to record observations and reflections and any questions the photograph prompts. Supplement their inquiry with the item’s bibliographic record.

Ask students to consider:

  • How does the bibliographic record deepen our understanding of the photograph?
  • How does it help focus our questions?
  • What does the record leave unanswered?
  • What questions does it raise?
Poster advertising reward for capture of Lincoln assassination conspirators.
$100,000 reward! The murderer of our late beloved President, Abraham Lincoln, is still at large

Provide a complementary primary source item such as this poster offering a reward for the capture of John Wilkes Booth and two accomplices. Take a closer look using prompts from the Teacher’s Guide for Analyzing Books and Other Printed Texts. Discuss how the poster deepens understanding of the photograph prompting revision of existing questions and development of new questions.

To further engagement and prompt question refinements, consider this drawing of the execution. Ask students how this artistic interpretation differs from the photographic view. Refine and develop questions again to reflect new information.

Drawing: Execution of the conspirators
Execution of the conspirators

Developing questions is important for building inquiry skills, but it can also be a means to encourage students to seek content about an event or era through interaction with the raw materials of history in the form of primary sources from the Library of Congress. Let us know what you think:

How can primary source  help students develop and refine questions as part of their research?

Comments (3)

  1. Inspiring Research Questions is a refreshing way of looking at questioning. Inspiring is the key word here. And, your example is understandable to any teacher. It is a simple, yet effective example that is easily replicable for any discipline at any grade level. Thanks for the Inspiration!

  2. Not long ago, I asked your staff as to whether our Library of Congress had any record of any former plantation owner or former slave owner or trader, who wrote an account of regret in their participation in the slavery business.

    I received a response that you had none. Is this really true? It is hard to believe that this is the case.

    Fernando Centeno

  3. the primary sourccess help all students that thinking about humanities life and that the humans how change the envirnoment and macking good chance for human and those are showing for development is nessaries first think and applying to think

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