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Developing Students’ Discipline-Specific Thinking by Studying Cultural Documentation

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This post was written by Stacie Moats and Cheryl Lederle of the Library of Congress.

In the February 2020 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article featured a collection documenting occupational heritage in Paterson, NJ, from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. The article opens with a photograph from this collection that exemplifies ethnography—or cultural documentation. Created in August 1994 by photographer Martha Cooper, the image shows a sign near Great Falls on the Passaic River in New Jersey that reads “Passaic Falls. Alexander Hamilton envisioned the great potential power of these scenic falls for industrial development.”

Sign near Great Falls on the Passaic

The article suggests that studying this photograph may serve as an entry point to further exploration of Paterson, including its history, geography, economics, and the role of civics in shaping the community. Asking discipline-specific questions about the photograph may help students discover new research paths. Furthermore, learning more about this collection might also inspire students to explore the heritage of their own community.

Begin by giving students ample time to observe the image of the historical “Sign near Great Falls on the Passaic.” Ask them which phrases from the sign itself capture their interest, and what they notice in the background. Spark curiosity by encouraging students to wonder about the sign’s location or perhaps its naming of Alexander Hamilton. They may ask: What was Hamilton’s involvement with industrial development, and what was the potential of “these scenic falls” for manufacturing?

Support students in developing questions that suggest particular disciplinary paths. Focusing on economics, they might ask: What types of industries were developing in the eighteenth century? What technologies existed for harnessing the power of water for energy during this time period? For civics, students might wonder about how industrial development may have led to new government regulations and increased representation at the local, state, and even national levels.

The article offers paths to additional research by exploring this collection and related materials through discipline-specific investigations with history, geography, economics, and civics presented as models. You and your students might develop and pursue additional paths for other social studies disciplines such as law, sociology, or cultural anthropology—all inspired by this single image.

If you tried these suggestions, or a variation of them, with your students after reading the article earlier this month, tell us about your experience!


  1. As a Librarian of a Rare Book Library, I have tried to awaken the users of the library to engage with the collections as the beginning of a hunger for inquiry, not the mint at the end of a meal. I hope give them fresh eyes to interpret and ask questions of the book as text, as object, and as a cultural encounter. Your short essay on Cultural Documentation strikes a match in the imagination; there are few answers but lots of good questions. Thank you.

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