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Getting Right to the Source with Science-Related Primary Sources from the Library of Congress

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Did you know that the Library’s education specialists write a column titled “Right to the Source” in The Science Teacher, a magazine published by the National Science Teachers Association? Each article features a primary source and offers context or historical information. Here are a few from recent issues with additional teaching suggestions.

Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell, May 4, 1917

In January, we highlighted a letter that Alexander Graham Bell wrote to his wife Mabel Hubbard Bell, describing an experiment where he reflects light under water. This simple letter outlining his experimental process and the variables includes a drawing of the apparatus he used. Students can use his letter to recreate the experiment and may consider why he decided to write his wife about this experiment instead of sending the information to other scientists or to a scientific journal. Teachers can also point students to the Library’s primary source set on Scientific Data collection to see how other scientists documented their work.

Cover Page of the Origin of the Species

February focused on the title page of Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Though many of us will only glance at a title page, this article encourages us to linger a little longer and consider Darwin’s background and experience based on the memberships listed. Encourage students to consider why Darwin decided to include his memberships on the title page and why this might be important. Share this cartoon with students and ask them what they think is being expressed. How does it connect to reasons why Darwin listed his memberships?

Page in Lezioni accademiche; with early barometer created by Torricelli, 1715

March featured a drawing of Evan Torricelli’s first mercury barometer that was included in a letter sent to a friend. This blog post about the barometer provides teaching ideas and tips on how students can make their own barometers. The Library’s Weather Forecasting primary source set offers primary sources that document the history of weather forecasting and how scientists kept track of weather throughout history.

Muddy Jim and other rhymes, 1919

April’s issue spotlighted Muddy Jim and Other Rhymes, a book of “Health Jingles” created by Emile Berliner and some of his associates. In the early 20th century many people were drawn to cities hoping for jobs and better lives, but they often found long hours and low pay, inadequate food and water, and slums rife with disease. The book, illustrated with color drawings, highlights the need for children to brush their teeth, bathe, get a good night’s sleep, and avoid tobacco. Students can read the book and consider what good health habits were not included. How effective do they think the rhymes were? Ask them to design their own healthy habits guide. What would they include or leave out?

If you are a member of the National Science Teachers Association, you can access these and our other “Right to the Source” articles on their Web site. If you are not a member you might visit your local library and ask the librarian to help you find The Science Teacher.


  1. This is a very rich blog filled with powerful resources. A heartfelt thank you to Danna Bell for not only these stories, but the idea of linking facts and details of future science stories to the past and the Library of Congress.

    The link for the Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell, May 4, 1917 allows you to explore the additional correspondence in a way that emphasizes the power of the man and the discoveries. The Cover Page of the Origin of the Species and the cartoon link can serve as a yearlong study in critical thinking and questioning. I delighted in Muddy Jim and other Rhymes of 1919 and hope teachers will share this with their students. Great fun.

    This blog offers insights and explanations by way of providing historical context for science primary sources in history. They give the backstory that creates the memorable narrative for students who can them explore concepts in depth. Visiting these links led me from one path to another and I could see I was on an odyssey. The Library of Congress has such rich primary sources that I couldn’t resist trying to link them to upcoming major events: the solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 and the Cassini-Huygens Grand Finale for Saturn. Lo’ and behold, those two upcoming momentous events are being well documented on the NASA web site but the Library of Congress is a powerful starting point to help understand the excitement due August 21 and September 15 of 2017.

    Now as I read the blogs (and I visit the earlier ones with this in mind) I see ways for these primary resources to build a clearer understanding of new events.

    Additional information on the solar eclipse of Aug.21, 2017 can be found at:

    How was the universe perceived and drawn in the 18th century? LOC has a wonderful resource.
    Digital Id:
    Title: A synopsis of the universe, or, the visible world epitomiz’d
    Contributor Names: Wright, Thomas, 1711-1786.

    As for Saturn, to understand the Cassini mission and its anticipated explosive end (called The Grand Finale) on September 15, 2017, one can listen to the lecture given at the Library of Congress by NASA’s Carrie Anderson and read about Saturn in LOC’s archives:
    SPEAKER: Carrie Anderson 
    EVENT DATE: 2014/06/26
    RUNNING TIME: 67 minutes
    TRANSCRIPT: with full transcript in a link that opens in a new window
    In this talk, Carrie Anderson explained how life on Saturn’s moon, Titan could possibly be a reality if it had more heat from the sun. 
    Speaker Biography: Carrie Anderson is the associate chief at the Goddard Planetary Systems Laboratory of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. She has worked extensively on the Cassini spacecraft.

    One can find more clarity in LOC’s Science, Technology and Business edition:
    Lecture: Saturn’s Moon Titan
    June 13, 2014 by Jennifer Harbster

    And don’t miss:
    Places in the News: Saturn 2007

    Armed with the Library’s background and resources, one can then visit the NASA links:
    Cassini: The Grand Finale Toolkit, the Grand Finale Orbit Guide and Raw images
    Cassini mission
    The Grand Finale

    Final Orbit and big dive into Saturn
    Sept. 15, 2017

    Cassini Spacecraft and Instruments
    Build It Yourself!
    All you need is paper, scissors and glue to make your own miniature explorer.
    Simple Version (47 Kb PDF)
    Challenging Version (201 Kb PDF)

    I see Danna Bell has provided me with my summer reading!

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