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Exploring Primary Sources by Creating Classroom Archives

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The Library of Congress has millions of primary sources that you can use with your students to engage them, encourage critical thinking, and help them construct knowledge. But how many of your students know that they are creating primary sources every day? As a longtime archivist, I see many possibilities for deepening students’ awareness of how primary sources are created and preserved.

Enhance your use of primary sources by encouraging your students to create their own classroom archives. Students can document daily activities in the classroom, school, and community by collecting or creating their own primary sources and arranging and describing them just like the archivists and curators do at the Library and at other archives around the world.

Start by by completing the activities in the Leaving Evidence of Our Lives section of this Library lesson plan to show students that they create primary sources every day. Next, help students begin to analyze their own primary sources by using some of the activities provided in the Primary Sources and Personal Artifacts lesson plan.

Historical documents guarded with great care by National Archives. Washington, D.C., Nov. 22. Harris and Ewing, 1939
Historical documents guarded with great care by National Archives. Washington, D.C., Nov. 22. Harris and Ewing, 1939

Once students understand that they create primary sources and contribute to the historical record, they can begin to consider what they want to collect in their classroom archives. What types of material will help students in the future learn about what they did each day in class? Next, they need to think about how they will arrange the materials. What kind of arrangement might make it easiest for future researchers to use their collection?

Each week, select one student to serve as the Class Archivist. He or she will collect materials, arrange them, and ask for help in getting materials to include in the classroom archives. At the end of the year, students should write about their archive, what is included, and what a future researcher would learn about their class from looking at the archive. Invite them to reflect on the importance of archives.

Bring in an archivist from the community to help students learn more about archives and what archivists do. As I am an archivist by training, I understand the importance of historical collections and how personally interacting with a historical diary, letter or photograph can help someone find a personal connection to an event.

Sisters Reading
Two Unidentified Women Reading Letters

Encourage students to tell family and friends about their classroom archives project and prompt them to document their family history or other aspects of their lives. Students can discover the importance of the stories told at the dinner table, the letters or mementos kept in a safe place, and the scrapbooks filled with clippings and photographs.

Interested in encouraging interest in local history? Explore the lessons Creating A Primary Source Archive: All History is Local and Local History: Mapping My Spot as well as the blog post Local History: Exploring What’s Just Outside Your Door

Are your students interested in preserving digital photographs or other online resources? This post from our sister blog The Signal may provide some ideas.

How can students’ creating their own archival collections help them to understand the importance of primary sources and the stories they share? Let us know in the comments.

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