Primary Source Set Connections: Child Labor Across Primary Source Sets and the Library’s Collections

More than three dozen thematic primary source sets from the Library of Congress offer support to busy teachers with starting places for inquiry and learning. Each set includes a teachers guide as well as 18 primary sources selected to represent various formats and facets of the theme. Select sets are also available as ebooks. Of course, additional themes weave across and through the sets.

For example,  primary sources and historical background on child labor are available in the sets Children’s Lives at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, The Industrial Revolution in the United States, and Political Cartoons and Public Debates.

Rhodes Mfg. Co., Lincolnton, N.C. Spinner. A moments glimpse of the outer world Said she was 10 years old. Selected from the Children’s Lives…primary source set

Salvin Nocito, 5 years old, carries 2 pecks of cranberries for long distance to the “bushel-man.” Selected from the Children’s Lives…primary source set

Detail from item record; click a link for additional resources

The Teachers Guide for the Children’s Lives set notes that:

In 1904 the National Child Labor Committee was formed to advocate for children in the work force. In the next few years, the federal government passed several laws to try to regulate child labor, but the Supreme Court declared them unconstitutional. Not until 1938 did the federal government successfully regulate the minimum age of employment and hours of work for children.

The Children’s Lives set includes several pictures by Lewis Wickes Hine and the National Child Labor Committee. While these items can be used alone, they also can be studied in conversation with each other or with other items from the National Child Labor Committee collection and other collections. Each item can launch investigations and research, beginning with the subjects available on the item record. For example, the item record for the North Carolina spinner offers an array of choices including the contributor, Lewis Wickes Hine, and subjects ranging from the location to “Mills” to “Textile Machinery,” and “Textile Mill Workers,” all linking to additional resources from the Library’s online collections.

Similarly, The Industrial Revolution and  Political Cartoons sets have items related to child labor, such as the Breaker Boys photo and the cartoon. They can be studied and examined individually, but comparing items can enrich understanding and prompt questions to drive further discovery and research into additional primary sources. Examining items from various sets, or the collections, can begin a dialog of sorts among the resources, corroborating or contradicting ideas as well as suggesting new paths to explore.

Breaker boys, Woodward Coal Mines, Kingston, Pa. Selected from The Industrial Revolution primary source set

Cartoon, National Child Labor Committee Collection. Selected from the Political Cartoons primary source set

For example, how might details from the Breaker Boys photo be used to support the main idea of the cartoon? Allow students time to look at one or more primary source sets to identify additional resources  to learn more. If time allows, direct students to research in the collections to build context and deeper understanding.

Students might repeat this exercise with other topics. What other connections between different primary source sets can students discover?

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