Category Archives: Historical Investigation

What's The Difference?!

The Library of Congress vs. The National Archives

Back in April, the Library of Congress (LOC) and the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) each shared a blog post detailing the similarities and differences between the two institutions. They were such great articles we thought we would share their insights and some of our own!

Library of Congress, Main Reading Room, Washington, D.C. published between 1900 and 1910.

Since 1800, the LOC has been a part of the legislative branch of the federal government. Their mission is to collected all forms of knowledge and creativity from within the United States and around the world. They also act as the national copyright repository, holding all items registered for US copyrights.  In addition, they operate offices throughout the world and receive materials through donations from private and group donors. Their holdings are not exclusive to United States materials.

The Archives Building, 1934

Established in 1934 as an independent agency of the executive branch, the National Archives is the “nation’s record keeper.” They gather, organize, maintain, and make available federal records created as part of running the nation.  Their holdings are unique to NARA and cannot be found anywhere else.  Their materials represent only 1-3% of all government records created, and yet that equals more than 10 billion records and counting!

As the articles indicate, there are some fundamental similarities between the two institutions.  First and foremost, they make historical materials accessible to the public at large. Anyone can visit the Library of Congress and request a book from their vast selection or pursue their online database. The National Archives also offers an open online database of materials, a main research building in the heart of D.C., and satellite archives around the country. Second, both institutions store and protect historical materials. All forms of communication from photographs, moving images, posters, emails, and various written documents are properly cared for and preserved for future use.

The main difference between the two institutions boils down to this: the Library of Congress collects materials while the National Archives is a repository. Libraries create collections of materials sorted by topic and compete with other similar institutions for sources.  Archives, particularly those associated with the government, receive their materials directly from agencies and organize based on the system established by the donating agency.

What’s important to you as a researcher is how to use the archives. Sifting though the billions of items can seem daunting but there are a few strategies you can employ to make it more manageable.

Navigating the LOC

For those new to the Library of Congress, we recommend starting at the Digital Collections homepage. Here you will find a hub of sorts containing links to newspapers, sound recordings, photographs, oral histories, legislative materials, digital finding aids, and more. This is a great place to start exploring the library and will help give you a feel for how to navigate the online databases. We also recommend visiting the online websites for past and present exhibitions.  These are particularly useful as trained historians and archivists have collected LOC items into usable and searchable databases, often with overviews. If you are interested in branching out a bit and exploring all the library has to offer, visit the full Online Catalog.

Navigating NARA

Searching the National Archives is very different from searching the LOC.  Their records are not organized by topic, but rather by federal agency. Searching their records requires a new strategy and a new way to approach online research. Think of the National Archives as a giant file cabinet. When agencies turn files over, NARA continues the agency’s organizational strategy employed for everyday use. When you are searching for a particular event, think of what federal agencies would be involved and use key word searches within those files.  To begin your search visit their Online Public Access network and don’t forget to narrow your search by using the Advanced Search options. For a more detailed walk through of how to use NARA’s database, visit this blog article.  You should also visit DocsTeach, an interactive website put together by NARA that provides document collections and lesson plan ideas for teachers.

Use these hyperlinks to read the original articles from the Library of Congress and the National Archives.  We’d love to hear about any treasures you find on your travels through the Library of Congress and the National Archives!


Thinking Through Thanksgiving

The Thanksgiving holiday is fast approaching and now is an ideal time to investigate how we think about the original event.  A versatile image available in our collection is the 1914 postcard by Jennie Brownscombe, “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth.”  This beautifully crafted and intricate image can serve either as an opener or final assessment.

Jennie Brownscombe, “The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth,” 1914.

As an opener for a lesson related to the Pilgrims, establishment of Plymouth, and interactions with local Native Americans have students engage in analysis using a strategy such as “Toolbox” described on page 3 of this Colonial Diversity lesson. After examining additional sources, such as this set at the Library of Congress, students can return to the Brownscombe image to discuss “Is this a realistic interpretation of the first Thanksgiving? Why or why not?” Requiring students to provide evidence for their choice provides an opportunity to strengthen the skills described in Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects related to reading a variety of sources on a topic (Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6–12 RH1 & 9, pg. 60) and writing arguments supported by evidence (Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6–12 WHST1, pg. 64.)

What primary sources do you like to use around Thanksgiving?

Investigating the Past through Documentary Source Problems

“The traditional stay-at-home and mind-your-own-business policy laid down by [George] Washington was wise for a weak and struggling nation…”

–Henry Watterson, newspaper editor, interviewed in The New York Herald, June 22, 1898

Debra Schneider, social studies teacher at Merrill F. West High School, comments on The Debate over the Philippines, 1898 – 1900, one of the many Documentary Source Problems created by Roland Marchand for his U.C. Davis students with modified versions for use in middle and high school class rooms.

I use this primary source investigation to introduce America’s imperialism at the end of the 19th century to my high school juniors in a U.S. history class. In fact, it was this documentary source problem that finally got me to teach this topic; these documents and the teaching methods were better than any others I had seen before then. I use documents from both the middle school and high school lessons, and guide the students with many questions from the middle school lesson.

Though it takes some work for students to make sense of the formal and old-fashioned language, this lesson never fails to intrigue and engage students with the powerful sentiments these documents express. Once we make sense of the documents’ meanings, we practice reading them aloud, to give expression and passion to the words. Students immediately identify the racism:  “Can we hope to close the flood-gates of immigration from the hordes of Chinese and the semi-savage races;”  the insincerity: “I didn’t want the Philippines, and when they came to us, as a gift from the gods, I did not know what to do with them;” how George Washington is being disrespected: “The traditional stay-at-home and mind-your-own-business policy laid down by [George] Washington was wise for a weak and struggling nation;” the pride: “We are taking our proper rank among the nations of the world,” and the abandonment of democratic principles: “You have no right at the cannon’s mouth to impose on an unwilling people your Declaration of Independence and your Constitution and your notions of freedom and notions of what is good.” The knowledge they construct with this lesson creates a good foundation for our study of American interventions for the rest of the 20th century.

As a way to have students “do history” we encourage you to consider using lessons from our collection of Documentary Source Problems. Each one includes background text,  one or more investigative or guiding questions, and some activities to help students analyze the document excerpts and form conclusions.  Let us know about your favorites!

Debra Schneider is a social studies teacher at Merrill F. West High School in Tracy, California, and a fellow of the U.C .Davis History Project and the Great Valley Writing Project.


Political Cartoons Provide Perspective

Title: “The Mortar of Assimilation,” 1889

"The Mortar of Assimilation," 1889

Description from Roland Marchand: The one unmixable element in the national pot was the Irish. A female U.S. figure, (“Uncle Samantha”?) stirs various stereotypes of different nationalities into the American melting pot, in “The Mortar of Assimilation,” 1889.

Political cartoons can be a powerful classroom tool. At best, they present issues clearly, allowing students to analyze multiple perspectives without the language challenges that they might find in a text-based primary source. The key to success is careful selection and preparation. Since political cartoons capture issues from the time of creation, some can overwhelm with details so it is important to choose those that depict an issue clearly and are relatively free of obscure references. It is equally important to anticipate where students may need additional context or background prior to attempting analysis. Finally, help students understand how political cartoon artists use caricatures, or drawings that exaggerate certain features or stereotypes, to indicate who the cartoon is about.

There are many ways to support student analysis of political cartoons. The Library of Congress for example, has a generic analysis guide available here, and a guide to persuasive techniques here, but a short set of carefully crafted questions can also be a simple and effective way for students to engage in analysis.

“The Mortar of Assimilation” is one of four political cartoons featured in an immigration lesson that asks students to investigate arguments made by Americans opposed to immigration in the late nineteenth century. This lesson, created by  middle school teacher Sara Schnack, is one of the image-centered investigations in the Marchand Archive’s Documentary Source Problems Collection.

For more political cartoons and other images related to immigration, browse the Marchand Image Collection “topic/themes” Immigration, Immigrants and Immigrant Societies and Organization.

Join the conversation! Share your favorite political cartoons and analysis techniques here.

Marchand’s Lessons Inspire In-Class Innovation

Today’s post is from Bruce Lesh, a high school teacher in Maryland and author of “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”: Teaching Historical Thinking in Grades 7-12.

Several years ago, in the midst of changing my instructional program in order to put my high school students in the position of investigating the past, I came across the work of Roland Marchand. Tipped off by a professional colleague from California, I felt as if a door had been opened. Here, within one website, were the assiduously collected materials of a fellow history teacher who understood that students need to be immersed in the materials of the past in order to find value in its study and to develop the skills necessary to be productive members of society. Not only had Marchand collected a wide variety of historical sources, he had the foresight to organize them under thoughtful historical questions which structured their investigation. Ideas that had been germinating in my classroom coalesced as I saw how Marchand organized instruction around student debate about historical evidence. Much of the work I encountered became the basis for the historical investigations I use with my students. While exploring the site, The Bonus Army quickly drew my interest. The interplay between the following sources convinced me that the question of responsibility for the removal of the Bonus Marchers was fertile ground for my high school students to investigate:

  • Excerpts from The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover: The Great Depression published in 1952.
  • Excerpts from Douglas MacArthur’s Reminiscences, published in 1964.
  • Statement to the press by General MacArthur, July 28.
  • Excerpt from General George Van Horn Moseley’s unpublished autobiography, One Soldier’s Journey
  • In At Ease: Stories I Tell To Friends (1967) Dwight D. Eisenhower

Over the years, my instinct about The Bonus Army has been rewarded with students investigating the evidence, applying that evidence to the overarching historical question, and developing interpretations substantiated with information derived from the evidence. Marchand’s Documentary Source Problems are the instructional forerunner of much of the work that has been done in history education. I still frequently find myself accessing the site for information, sources, and inspiration. My only regret is that I never got to meet Roland and pick what must have been a brain bountiful with ideas about inspirational history instruction.

Further reading:

Related lesson in the Marchand Collection:

From the publisher’s description of Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?”

Every major measure of students’ historical understanding since 1917 has demonstrated that students do not retain, understand, or enjoy their school experiences with history. Bruce Lesh believes that this is due to the way we teach history — lecture and memorization. Over the last fifteen years, Bruce has refined a method of teaching history that mirrors the process used by historians, where students are taught to ask questions of evidence and develop historical explanations. And now in his new book “Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” he shows teachers how to successfully implement his methods in the classroom.

Why Won’t You Just Tell Us the Answer?” is available from IndieBound, Amazon, or directly from Stenhouse.