Perfectly Possible: Library of Congress Primary Sources in YOUR Library

Participants working together around a primary source at the Library of Congress Teacher Institute

Pictured: Susan Taylor (top left) the author, (middle), Chris Buffone (top right) and the hands of Rob Grace, Matt Beyer, Leslie Sharbel, and Vanessa Quintanilla.

Beating the Summer Heat

This summer, I got to beat the heat of southern Maryland by attending a very cool week-long adventure at the Library of Congress. In the spring, I applied to be a part of the Teaching with Primary Sources Teachers’ Institute at the library. Happily, I was accepted and was able to spend the week of July 29 catching the commuter bus into Washington, D.C. to participate. It was an intense week of making new friendships with teachers from across the United States, applying what we learned, and spending time learning about what the Library of Congress has to offer.

Introducing…Primary Sources

Our week kicked off with an introduction to primary sources. The participants were invited to walk around multiple tables featuring primary resources from different time periods. When we found one that piqued our curiosity, we grabbed it and started writing down what we observed. I gravitated to a photo of a poster instructing Americans of Japanese descent to report to be shipped to an internment camp during World War II. I had just finished reading George Takei’s graphic memoir They Called Us Enemy and the photo struck a chord. As part of this first activity, we were invited to make connections to our prior knowledge and to make close observations. After making our own observations, we were invited to find another participant that had a primary source to which we could make connections to our own source. It was a great way to start to interact with resources and with each other.

At this point, I should mention that the Library of Congress has curated sets of primary resources for teachers to use that you can find linked here. You could try this activity in the school library as an intro to primary resources or even as a way to get students to get to know one another. The Library of Congress has a great resource for you to help facilitate the interaction with primary sources in your library.

Lively Debate, Discussion, and Thinking Like a Historian

As a class, we engaged in a lively debate about what makes a primary resource and what makes a secondary resource.

According to our facilitators, Cheryl and Mike, primary sources are the “raw materials of history — original documents and objects which were created at the time under study.” They are different from secondary sources, accounts or interpretations of events created by someone without first-hand experience.

As the week continued, we spent most of our time learning how to work with students in thinking like a historian, how to make thinking visible, and creating our own lesson plans using primary resources.

As librarians, how great would it be to  work with students in teaching the value of thinking like a historian?


  1. Source their information — they identify the author’s purpose and consider point of view and trustworthiness.
  2. Contextualize — historians place the item in time and space
  3. Close read — they consider what the document says and read it for language and clues
  4. Corroborate — they compare claims and evidence and determine agreement and disagreement

Re-reading the four bullet points above, I was struck by how closely thinking like a historian mirrors the skills school librarians teach when it comes to information literacy and finding and vetting resources!


At the teacher institute, I also spent a large portion of the week connecting with ways in which inquiry can be used in the classroom and in the school library by bringing in the use of primary resources. I was struck by the parallel to the AASL Standards and the Shared Foundation of Inquire.

Throughout the week, I learned how to connect with primary resources and how to encourage our students to connect. I also practiced analyzing images, maps, and multiple perspectives using a model of: Observe, Reflect, and Question.

Observe: this is where students write down what they see in the primary source. They identify and note details. “I see…”

Reflect: during this process students generate and test their hypothesis about the source and are encouraged to use the model “I think …because….”

Question: students now ask questions to lead to more observations and reflections. This is the “I wonder…”

Our facilitators, Cheryl and Mike, practiced and modeled best practices in inquiry and visible thinking throughout the duration of the week. We worked in teams and practiced facilitating discussions around primary resources. (Shout out to my home table team: Amara, Allyson, Gabriel, and Laura!)

Highlights and Resources

The tour of  the Thomas Jefferson building was a highlight. The Jefferson building is an amazingly beautiful building and is the building most people think of when they think about the Library of Congress. If you’ve seen National Treasure, the main reading room of that building is featured in the movie with Nicholas Cage. Many of us, myself included, were walking round with our mouths open and eyes gazing up at the architecture and sculptures throughout. An added bonus, there were two exhibits Thomas Jefferson’s Library and the Women’s Suffrage movement were available to view. Can’t get there in person? The library puts all of the exhibits online, so you can take a virtual tour with your students. I’ve linked them above.

Last, but not least, I would be remiss if I didn’t share with you links to resources where you can find out more about what the Library of Congress has to offer teachers and school librarians.

Library of Congress Teacher Home Page

Library of Congress Classroom Materials Home Page

Library of Congress Professional Development

Library of Congress Using Primary Resources

Library of Congress Today in History

You Know You Want To

Applications for the Library of Congress Summer Teacher Institute are not open for summer of 2020 yet, but when they are, you can check back here to apply. After reading about the institute, I know you want to apply! The entire week was a whirlwind of learning, laughter, and making new friends from around the country and well worth the investment of time and energy! I’m excited to share what I learned at the institute this summer with others. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below and I’ll do my best to share what I know.


Author: Jennifer Sturge

Jennifer Sturge is a Specialist for School Libraries and Digital Learning for Calvert County Public Schools. She has been an educator and librarian for 28 years and is always looking forward. She is a member of ALA and AASL,was the 2020-2021 President of the Maryland Association of School Librarians for 2020-2021, a 2017-2018 Lilead Fellow, and Chair of the AASL Supervisor’s Section of AASL..

Categories: Blog Topics, Community/Teacher Collaboration, Professional Development, Technology

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1 reply

  1. I went to this Institute many years ago and we did the same activities… literally changed my life, of teaching and of just generally observing the world. You will definitely find much to share with your faculty and students. Jennifer, enjoy sharing all this great info!
    Connie Williams

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