Now Online: More Presidential Papers Collections to Spark New Student Research Opportunities

This post is by Kaleena Black of the Library of Congress.

If your U.S. history students are looking for research projects related to U.S. presidents, they may be interested in three new collections that the Library of Congress has recently placed online: the papers of  Andrew Johnson (17th president; served 1865-69), Chester Alan Arthur (21st president; served 1881-1885), and William McKinley (25th president; served 1897-1901).

Totaling more than 175,000 items, including photographs, handwritten letters between family and friends, speeches, official documents, and more, these collections offer numerous opportunities for exploration. They open windows into the personal lives and careers of these politicians. They also provide insight into the historical moments during which they lived and served, including presidential transitions, the aftermath of President Lincoln’s assassination, the Civil War, the Reconstruction period, the assassination of President Garfield, and the Spanish-American War.

detail from Chester Alan Arthur Papers home page

These new collections are also a good opportunity to become familiar with the common features of the Library’s online presidential papers collections. On the home page for each digitized collection, you’ll notice three main tabs: “About this Collection,” “Collection Items,” and “Articles and Essays.” Along the left margin of the page, you’ll find links to “Teaching Resources” and “Expert Resources,” which provide a round-up of materials found on the Library’s website and elsewhere.

If you have limited time to explore the collection, you may want to focus on the “About This Collection” section, where you’ll find featured content in the top banner, a brief summary of the collection, and a categorized list of the items within the collection.

If you’re looking for a particular document, try typing a keyword into the search box at the top of the page. You can then narrow results, using facets on the left panel (e.g., date, subject, place).


For a deeper dive, you can explore each collection’s index and finding aid, which provide more technical, and, sometimes, keyword-searchable access to the collections.

Once you’ve explored, invite students to investigate these primary sources independently, perhaps starting with those in the “Featured Content” section. Students may choose an item and discuss how it supports, complicates, or even contradicts what they have learned or researched about a particular historical figure or time period. Ask students to articulate anything puzzling that they notice. Then invite them to explore questions that surface.

For future research, students can access additional resources on these presidents and others, elsewhere on the Library’s site. If interested in how these presidents were portrayed in newspapers, for example, they can explore this list from the online historical newspaper database Chronicling America (try searching by president’s name or look under the “Presidential Administrations” or “Presidential Elections” headings). In addition, some audiovisual materials in the Library’s National Screening Room may be of interest, such as this 1901 video showing President McKinley taking his oath of office. Finally, as noted in one of the finding aids, papers of individuals associated with these presidents can also offer access points for research; see, for example, History of the Collection in the finding aid for the Arthur papers.

Please share any research techniques that your students find useful with these collections!

Where Do You Go If You’ve Reached a Historical “Dead End”?

Where can you look if you think you’ve run out of information about a person or place? How can we encourage students to be persistent researching in the face of a “dead end”? And how do we equip students with the knowledge of databases and archives, so that when they run into a historical dead end, they know where to keep looking?

The Evolution of Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”

The Library of Congress houses the largest archival collection of Walt Whitman materials in the world, all of which have are now available online. Seeing portions of Whitman’s poems in various stages of composition reveals both his very active creative mind and his innovative ways of seeing the world and crafting poetic expressions.

Expanding Student Understanding of Slavery in America by Exploring an Arabic Muslim Slave Narrative

In the January-February 2019 issue of Social Education, the journal of the National Council for the Social Studies, our “Sources and Strategies” article discusses the Life of Omar ibn Said, the only known extant narrative written in Arabic by an enslaved person in the United States. Analyzing this unique manuscript provides students with an opportunity to expand their understanding of some of the people who were brought to the United States from Africa to be enslaved. How educated were they? What did they believe?

Sergeants Robert A. Pinn and William H. Thomas: African American Entrants in William O. Bourne’s Left-Handed Penmanship Contests, 1865-1867

In 1866, William O. Bourne organized a unique left-handed penmanship contest for Union veterans who had lost the use of their right hand. Veterans were encouraged to submit a letter they had written using their left hand and a total prize money of $1000.00 was offered. The Library of Congress holds the many of the entrants’ letters and other information on Bourne and the contest.

“When Johnny Comes Marching Home” Marches Across Time

Sometimes listeners are surprised to find a familiar tune lurking behind the lyrics of a new song. Songwriters may revisit and reuse existing compositions, hoping to catch a listener’s attention through something familiar. The Civil War era song “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” not only resembles an earlier song, but also inspired a number of parodies.