Going Straight to the (Primary) Source: A Week at the Library of Congress

October 22, 2019

The Library of Congress’ annual teacher institutes allow educators from across the country to ascend on the nation’s capital to get a first-hand look at primary sources and all the library has to offer. Nearly 100 people participated in the three annual conferences this year! I was fortunate to attend the institute this summer on behalf of the iCivics Educator Network. Throughout the week, I truly got to experience several “Aha!” moments while attending a very beneficial professional development.  

Established in 1800, the Library of Congress has more than 168 million items ranging from Cuneiform tablets dating back to 4,000 years ago to a collection of 17th-18th century Stradivarius stringed instruments. The items, housed in more than two million square feet, tell the story of America’s past and keep the country’s history alive. One of the many highlights of the week was a private tour of the Main Reading Room in the Jefferson Building (one of three Library of Congress’ buildings) to learn about the facility’s art and architecture.  

The week-long institute allows educators to observe the primary sources in person and obtain information on utilizing online resources for use in their classrooms. Teachers learn strategies for using both primary and secondary sources, including analysis tools for books, maps, photographs and musical recordings.  

The culminating activity for all participants for the week is to create a primary source activity to incorporate into their classrooms this fall. A variety of lessons were created that included using local maps that showed population growth to letters from America’s forefathers that addressed the issue of slavery.  

Some of these most impressionable moments for me included seeing Madison’s 12 articles, the Bill of Rights as submitted to the states; Walt Whitman’s list of observations he made while volunteering in Civil War hospitals that he later used to write Memoranda during the War; and original sheet music from Why Can’t a Girl Be a Soldier? It is one thing to read about historical documents, but it is certainly another to actually see them in original form and think about the hands that held them and the brilliant minds that wrote the words that appear on the paper.  It truly brings history to life.  

Another highlight was the tour of the Main Reading Room, which allowed us to explore a beautiful area that most are seldom able to do. The amazing construction of its awe-inspiring beauty is truly not appreciated until you look up to the dome as the sun is shining through and see the intricate details of The Evolution of Civilization and realize what a great American marvel this sight truly is. (Teacher nerd moment: while in the reading room, I got to sit in the seat Nicolas Cage did in National Treasure!)  

To leave with great memories of the Library of Congress is something I will always treasure, but being able to know how to use the library’s online resources and copies of numerous primary sources that I can use in my classroom was the icing on the cake. Already this school year, I have been able to plan numerous activities using the primary and secondary sources, several of which have included a tie-in to the iCivics curriculum. For example, I used Madison’s original notes on debates at the Federal Constitutional Convention, played iCivics’ Race to Ratify, and finished the lesson with Jefferson’s letters to Madison.  This allowed students to truly understand the intent of the federalists and the obstacles they faced. Another lesson, I used to follow the teaching of the Bill of Rights was to play the Do I Have a Right: Bill of Rights edition, and then have students examine political cartoons throughout modern America from the Library of Congress’ vast collection. This allowed students to observe how those rights are applicable today.  

I have been a Social Studies educator for over twenty years and have attended numerous professional developments; however, there has never been one more beneficial than the Library of Congress’ Teaching with Primary Sources Summer Teacher Institute. I not only learned, observed, and experienced but I imagined. I imagined the impact my learning will have on my teaching.  I imagined the influence my new resources will have on my colleagues. But most importantly, I imagined the difference I will be able to make for my students and the lasting impact it may have. Inscribed on the Library of Congress Madison building is the quote, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance”.  Let us prepare our future generations with a strong mind, a wealth of knowledge, and a book in their hand, so they can learn from the past, yet pave the way for the future.  

For more information on the Library of Congress's summer institutes, you can visit their website

Don't miss your chance to apply to join iCivic’s Educator Network. The deadline for 2020 applications is December 1!

Written By Allyson McNaboe
Allyson teaches 9th-12th Civics, World History, AP Psychology in Philippi, West Virginia. She has been a member of the iCivics Education Network since December 2018.