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Gleaning Veterans’ Stories and Primary Sources Related to Military Service

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The Veterans History Project (VHP) at the Library of Congress collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American war veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war. The VHP includes visual materials as well as correspondence and personal narratives, and browsing the collections offers unexpected delights as well as hard insights. Of course, other Library collections also document both individual and more general experiences of veterans and service members, though sometimes finding the items requires creative and persistent searching.

[Susan Baptist, a projectionist, shows training films for the troops as well as more popular motion pictures]
For example, searching for “U.S. Army Signal Corps” yields more than 100, 000 results. Too many to browse comfortably! However, using the options in the left column, those results can be refined in many ways, including by original format, date, or location, to make the list more manageable. Limiting by date, for example, helps get to items from a particular war.

This picture of Susan Baptist caught our eyes among the search results and reminded us that of course the troops watched training films as well as more popular motion pictures. It prompted some conversation about life for the soldiers as well as jobs performed by service members that might be overlooked. Present this photograph to students and ask them what surprises them about it. If time allows, they might form those responses into questions to focus research to learn more.

Realizing that the photograph is part of the “Visual Materials from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Records,” we clicked the Lot 13103 link in the “Part of” list in the right column to explore related items. Most of the women in the photographs in this lot were described by military function rather than name, which might inspire a class discussion about why that might be and implications for learning more. However, one caption names both Mary McLeod Bethune and Captain Dovey M. Johnson. Students might research to learn more about either woman.

To find even more primary sources, scroll to the bottom of the item record and explore links to subject headings as well as lists of “More like this…” For more tips on mining an item record to find additional resources, read Using Item Records to Explore Interesting Research Rabbit Holes by Jen Reidel, 2019-20 Teacher in Residence.

Ready-built primary source sets, curated from the Library’s collections, offer another easy starting place for locating stories of veterans along with teaching ideas:

Students might extend their understanding of a veteran’s experience by researching to learn more about events immediately before and after the veteran’s service. They might compare experiences of veterans from the same or different eras.

However  your students interact with these powerful, original materials, please take a moment to share their discoveries or questions.

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