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The Library of Congress (LC) National Digital Library is digitizing collections of primary source materials and making them available on the World Wide Web. EDC Center for Children and Technology (CCT) has been working with the Library of Congress to help make these materials accessible and useful to educators teaching American history, social studies, and language arts. This article, based on CCT research, discusses some of the pedagogical and technological challenges of using digitized primary sources in the classroom.
Imagine browsing through a series of photographs taken by Matthew Brady during the Civil War or reading some of Walt Whitman's notebooks -- in his own handwriting. Traditionally stored in musty archives, primary source materials such as these have only been available to people who could make a special trip to access them. But a number of government and university libraries around the world are digitizing their collections and making them available on CD-ROM and the World Wide Web. The two sets of materials mentioned above are from the Library of Congress (LC), which has digitized some thirty collections of primary sources in U.S. history to date through its National Digital Library, including photos, films, pamphlets, oral histories, and political cartoons.
At the Center for Children and Technology (CCT), we have spent the past year watching teachers use the Library of Congress collections. Supported by the Kellogg Foundation, LC asked CCT researchers and curriculum designers to help them understand what roles these kinds of online resources can play in history and social studies curricula, and what kinds of support educators and students need to use them well.
Teachers, we've found, are enthusiastic. After years of teaching with textbooks cobbled together so as to offend no one, and with the often inadequate resources of small school libraries, classroom teachers, librarians, and media specialists with World Wide Web access can now engage students in authentic historical inquiry. Instead of consuming predigested accounts of historical figures and events, students get fragmentary and detailed pieces of evidence that historians themselves use as building blocks in fashioning their narratives. At their best, these fragments are vivid and personal -- a letter, a domestic photograph -- in ways that intrigue students and provoke questions and curiosity. For teachers who have taught the Civil War through textbooks and lectures, for instance, the Brady photos -- views of battlefields, but also portraits of slave "contrabands," documentation of military technology, and images of what daily life was like for common soldiers -- open new windows onto an old subject, and new avenues for their, as well as that of their students', curiosity and research
CCT's mission is to understand and develop the roles that new media can play in changing education, making it more learner-centered, more rigorous, more collaborative, and more inquiry-based. In working with the Library of Congress to make its vast archives of online primary sources useful for K-12 educators, we undertook several areas of work. First, we mapped the connections between the library's collections and the K-12 curriculum in history, social studies, and language arts. Second, we developed sample lesson plans that would model way of using primary sources to build narrative understanding of history, strengthen critical thinking skills, and help students make connections between history and their own lives. Third, we field tested the model lessons in a variety of classrooms in order to understand the challenges and opportunities that teachers and students face in using these materials. Based on what we learned in these activities, we have designed software tools to support students' and teacher' work with primary sources and have also begun a face and online workshops and seminars.
The great promise of online resources for classroom inquiry is immediacy -- students' ability to search and find materials as the need for them arises, at the point of intellectual purchase or, as educators are fond of saying, at the "teachable moment." Student use of the collections for collaborative inquiry, even posting and sharing of history monographs, is one of CCT's ultimate goals in working with LC. But the current realities of access for the vast majority of classrooms make this ideal difficult to realize. The number of computers available to a class of thirty is often small. The level and reliability of Web connectivity varies widely. Search engines are not learner friendly, and it can take students quite a while to find the kind of information they are seeking.
These challenges are common to many digital resources. The pedagogical challenges of using primary sources in the classroom …