Close to Home: A Voyage of Discovery Using Primary Sources

The following is a guest post by Michael Apfeldorf, who recently joined the Library’s education team.

When, after just one week on the job at the Library of Congress, I was asked to write a guest blog post on what I’d learned so far, my first reaction was: “Where the heck do I start?” The Library is so vast, with so many incredible resources, I didn’t know where to begin.

After a few false starts, I finally reverted to something familiar and searched for the name of my home town.  I was not expecting to get many results. Martinsburg, West Virginia, was a great place to grow up, but it wasn’t my sense that anything particularly extraordinary happened there. So, imagine my surprise when this simple search returned thousands of fascinating primary source documents on a wide variety of topics. Among them:

Apple Picking in Berkeley County, West Virginia 1910

Apple Picking in Berkeley County, West Virginia 1910

Browsing these results, I was immediately drawn to resources that held personal significance to me. For instance, apple orchards were a big deal in our region, and my family even had two small apple trees in our backyard; I still remember eating the apples and occasionally throwing them at my friends!

As I examine Apple Picking in Berkeley County, West Virginia, I find myself intrigued to learn more about these people who lived and worked where I played as a child. Look at those long, wobbly ladders — why were they shaped that way? Who were these people; was this one giant extended family? Could they be migrant workers? I see the little girl sitting on the barrel eating the apple, and I wonder: Did they send her and other children up on the ladder as well? Analyzing this photograph could spark questions across a broad range of topics, from science to social studies. One English teacher I showed it to suggested using it with Robert Frost’s “After Apple Picking.”

It occurs to me that what I learned on my initial foray into the Library’s online collections also applies to teachers using primary sources with their students: Students are often most strongly engaged when they feel a personal connection to history, music, art, science or any topic, and this connection can be facilitated through the lens of primary source materials. The Library’s Primary Source Analysis Tool taps into this original engagement so that students may then think deeply and critically about what they observe, ultimately learning more about something they are truly interested in. I was amazed at how many connections I made, even though the original search was almost entirely personal.

If you’ve used a similar approach with your students, or if you plan to, we’d love to hear about it. Post a comment below sharing your teaching experiences with us!


  1. Sherry L.
    December 23, 2014 at 11:42 am

    A wonderful post with a great message of local legacy!

  2. Michael Brna
    December 23, 2014 at 2:57 pm

    Welcome Michael!

    Great first effort and so on mark with the great questions about apple picking. A perfect example for teachers who also struggle to find a starting point. Looking forward to your next contribution!

  3. Mary Alice Anderson
    December 28, 2014 at 12:29 pm

    I first used this approach with undergraduate education students at a University. They absolutely loved the activity and every person found something in American Memory about their hometown, county or rural area. I now ask graduate students (teachers or media specialists) to do the same thing in an online course about primary sources. They are amazed at what they find and discover so much right in their own back yard when they are also asked to search local digital archives.

    The activity helps students to know each other better face-to -face or online. Local history is a special interest for me. I always find something interesting in communities of all sizes.

    When I worked at an elementary school we discovered old scrapbooks and photo albums about the school in a cupboard. The 4th grade students were totally engaged and had many questions.

  4. Mike Apfeldorf
    December 30, 2014 at 8:25 am

    Sherry, Michael and Mary Alice — thank you very much for the welcome and the awesome teaching ideas! Great to be here and working with top educators using primary sources…

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