This post was written by Stacie Moats of the Library of Congress.
Teachers and students alike most often associate the Library of Congress with national treasures. Yet you may be surprised to discover hidden gems in the Library’s collections relating to your hometown’s history! Digital collections featuring photographs, maps, historic newspaper articles, and even Congressional records offer unique opportunities for learners of all ages to discover and connect with primary sources through personally meaningful inquiry into state or local history.
You might start by browsing the Library’s primary source sets, which include 50 state-specific sets. For example, the primary source set for my home state of New Jersey features a page from an 1845 legal document relating to slavery in New Jersey and the documentary, “A Day with Thomas A. Edison, 1922” (filmed onsite at the inventor’s Llewellyn Park home and laboratories in Orange, NJ). Next, you could try entering the name of your county, hometown, a nearby landmark or perhaps a famous individual or group into the universal search box in the upper-right corner of LOC.gov 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”).
A search relating to my own hometown of North Plainfield led me to this perspective map of Plainfield and North Plainfield, N.J. 1899. Much to my delight, I also discovered a Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from North Plainfield, Somerset County, New Jersey. Updated in 1955, the Sanborn map even features a section detailing my neighborhood and street, although not my house, which was built in the same year the map was published!
Like me, students might compare the two maps, noticing physical details that changed over time. Selecting questions from the Teacher’s Guide to Analyzing Maps, teachers might further prompt students to consider other differences between the maps, such as purpose and audience. Students might further investigate questions by searching the historic newspapers in Chronicling America. For instance, I wondered why the 1899 map paired the cities of Plainfield and North Plainfield. A quick keyword search of “North Plainfield” across all newspapers resulted in a 1914 article “Borough Votes on City Annexation” about the proposed consolidation of North Plainfield with the adjacent city of Plainfield, initially proposed 12 years earlier. I certainly never learned this local history as a student! How would my hometown have changed if voters had approved the proposal? How might students vote on similar legislation today? Why?
These discoveries brought to mind the song lyrics of “My Hometown,” by New Jersey-born rock musician, Bruce Springsteen. Of course, this inspired me to search the collections again! Results included various related photographs from the Carol Highsmith collection, including this one of the house where the artist lived while writing one of his seminal albums, and a Congressional resolution passed in honor of Springsteen.
What hometown connections might your students discover in the Library’s collections? How might you use their personal interests to explore local, state, and national histories? Share your teaching ideas and learning discoveries with us!