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One woman watches as another examines with a magnifying glass an ornate, decorative image on a printed page
Teachers explore Library of Congress primary sources. (Stephen Wesson/Library of Congress)

“Unleashing the Power of Local History: Inspiring Student Engagement with Library of Congress Primary Sources”

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This post is by Karla Berrios, a 2023 Library of Congress Junior Fellow.

As a Library of Congress Junior Fellow, I created learning activities highlighting items from the Library’s digitized collections to support culturally relevant teaching. I focused my related research on identifying primary sources that could help students gain a more inclusive and holistic understanding of the challenges and changes African Americans faced in the post-Civil War era (1865-1900). In my experience as a high school American History teacher, this can be a challenging time period to teach because students can easily get overwhelmed by all the related political and economic details.

One strategy for engaging students in learning about this pivotal time in American race relations is to explore this time period through a lens of local history. By incorporating local history into their teaching, educators can make learning about our nation’s past more engaging and relatable. It can also help students connect the past to their own lives, foster a sense of community, and equip them with valuable skills for analyzing and understanding historical narratives. I started my own research in the Library’s digital collections by looking for primary sources related to the Wilmington coup of 1898, a significant historical event from the post-Civil War era that occurred in the city I now call home – Wilmington, NC.

I quickly learned that one of the most useful digital resources available from the Library of Congress for exploring local history is Chronicling America, a free, searchable database of historic American newspapers. The article headline below is from the front page of the November 26, 1898 issue of the Richmond Planet, a Black-owned newspaper that I discovered by searching Chronicling America. It was just one of many compelling newspaper articles published after the Wilmington coup of 1898.


Headline from the Richmond Planet November 28, 1898
More Bout the Butcheries. Richmond Planet, November 28, 2898


In addition to inviting students to analyze this primary source, perhaps prompting discussion of the political and racial violence of the post-Civil War era, this historic newspaper article could also lead to student inquiry surrounding African American agency and activism. Students could also search Chronicling America for another article on the same topic published in a different newspaper to compare and analyze various perceptions of the events in Wilmington, NC.

To explore how the Library of Congress can help you integrate more local history into your classroom, consider local or regional historical events or figures that relate to a broader topic you are teaching. You could begin by entering the name of a specific event or person into the universal search box in the upper-right corner of to search across the Library’s digital collections. Use the drop-down menu to filter your search results by format (e.g., “Photos, Prints, Drawings”), date or location. If you don’t have a specific event or person in mind, you could start by browsing the Library’s primary source sets, which include 50 state-specific sets.

You could also use Chronicling America to find a primary source that provides local historical perspectives on a broader topic by searching a keyword or phrase and refining the search results to newspapers from your state. For example, a quick search for newspaper issues from North Carolina, my home state, that discussed President Andrew Johnson’s impeachment produced 70 search results.

How do you already incorporate local history in your classroom? What local history connections could you search for in the Library of Congress digital collections?

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