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Visiting Washington, D.C.? Enrich Your Trip with Primary Sources

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Are you planning a trip to Washington, D.C., with your students or your family? We are always delighted to see the thousands of visitors who travel to our city during the summer months, and every year we see groups of people looking in awe at the beautiful and historic buildings that are found in our nation’s capital. It’s fun to watch visitors take pictures of the Capitol, the monuments, and the buildings and fountains that are a part of the Library of Congress Capitol Hill campus.

View from White House showing United States Treasury Building with U.S. Capitol in distance - L'Enfant-McMillan Plan of Washington, DC, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Jack E. Boucher
View from White House showing United States Treasury Building with U.S. Capitol in distance – L’Enfant-McMillan Plan of Washington, DC, Washington, District of Columbia, DC. Jack E. Boucher

Primary sources on the Library of Congress Web site can help you explore the stories–and the architecture–behind these historic buildings. Use the Historic American Building Survey (HABS) to learn more about the buildings and monuments you will visit while in Washington, D.C.  HABS is one of three programs run by the National Park Service staff and volunteers to document historic buildings, historic engineering (HAER) projects, and historic landscapes (HALS) with photographs, measured drawings, and historical information.

  • Before you visit, review HABS documentation for buildings such as the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and Library of Congress – Jefferson Building. What information do you wish had been included in the HABS documentation for these buildings?
  • Encourage your students to use the Library’s online activity “The Thomas Jefferson Building: Secret Messages” to practice studying buildings as primary sources.
  • Explore the information on the Lincoln Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and Washington Monument. What can you and your students learn about the creation of the monuments and why they are located where they are located?
  • During your visit, talk about the ways in which these buildings match or didn’t match your expectations. What did you and your students notice in person that you didn’t notice in the HABS documents, and vice versa?
  • When you return from your travels explore the HABS-HAER-HALS collection to locate historical landmarks in your community. Ask your students why they think it is important to document these historic landmarks.
  • What buildings, engineering landmarks or historic landscapes do your students wish were included? Encourage them to start doing the research.

Ask your students what they learned from studying these historic buildings as primary sources, and how doing so enriched their visit. Share their responses in the comments, and come back to Washington soon!


  1. This is an ideal resource for planning of effective field trips to the Nation’s Capital Area. Thanks for this additional resource!

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