“Perfect” Primary Sources Combinations

This post is by Lee Ann Potter, Director of the Professional Learning and Outreach Initiatives office at the Library of Congress

Image of Alexander Graham Bell in a room with several men making a telephone call

Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago, 1892

In the October 2022 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article featured this photograph.  According to its bibliographic record, it was taken of “Alexander Graham Bell at the opening of the long-distance line from New York to Chicago,” on October 18, 1892, and printed later.  Its summary provides little additional detail, describing only what is visible in the image: “Alexander Graham Bell seated at table, speaking into telephone while a group of men watch.”

We suggested that sharing such an image with students—one of a newsworthy event, but containing very little explanation or contextual information—can generate dozens of questions and lead to creative research.

Students might wonder: Who were the other people in the room? How many people were there? How and why did they get invited? Where was the room?  Was Bell in New York or Chicago?  Who did he talk to? Was the call successful?  What did Bell and the other person on the call talk about?

Encouraging students to generate a list of such questions, then brainstorming with them another list of what sources might contain the answers, and a third list of where those sources might be available, can provide insight into student awareness of information sources, as well as the extent of their understanding of what information sources existed during different time periods.

In the case of the Bell photograph, it documented a newsworthy event that indeed made it into the newspaper.  In fact, roughly six weeks after the image was taken, an article entitled “Talking One Thousand Miles,” appeared on the front page of the Anderson Intelligencer, published in Anderson Court House, SC. It was submitted to the paper by Scientific American, a once weekly precursor to today’s Scientific American Magazine.

We suggested inviting students to read the article, reminding them of the questions they had generated after analyzing the photograph, and leading a class discussion in which students answer the questions based on information contained in the article.  We also explained that while the extensive newspaper article may answer all of the questions that they posed, it will likely generate new questions to be answered by other sources.  (I, for one, would love to know more about something mentioned in the very last paragraph of the article.  It said that each invited guest was “presented with a neat souvenir consisting of a spiral of the No. 8 copper wire flattened at each end, from which is suspended two miniature receivers.  The words New York’ and ‘Chicago’ are stamped on each end.” Surely, at least one of those souvenirs still exists.  I would love to see one!)

Our next suggestion was for students to brainstorm what those additional sources might be and what repositories might make them available. This suggestion grew from a panel discussion that I facilitated earlier this year as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Education Summit.

The Perfect Primary Source Combination” featured four Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Consortium partners including: Jessica Ellison from the Minnesota Historical Society, Tuyen Tran from the California History Social Studies Project at UC-Davis, Bridget Morton from Mars Hill University in western North Carolina and Alison Noyes from the Collaborative for Educational Services in Massachusetts.

We began our conversation by inviting participants to engage in a brief primary source analysis activity involving the Bell photograph.  Then each panelist described how they have been combining primary sources from the Library of Congress with items from the Smithsonian and other repositories in their work developing curricular materials and professional development opportunities for educators.

They emphasized how the “perfect primary source combination” is different every time in its content, but that all engage, involve, and connect students in meaningful ways.  They explained how how multiple sources can present different perspectives; how sources of different media can address different learning styles; how a variety of sources can increase content relevancy for students; and how combining sources can help corroborate information and answer questions.

They also shared how a single source can serve as a point of entry into much larger stories and research opportunities—a single source such as the Bell photograph from 1892.

If you engaged your students with any of these suggestions, or participated in the summit session, we invite you to share your experience.

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