Fall in Love with the Library of Congress

Introduce your class to this special library while simultaneously addressing the Common Core State Standards.

By Erin Bailey


Inside view of the Library of Congress

My family has moved around a bit, and one of the first things I do upon settling in to a new place is get a library card. For me, that little piece of plastic is an anchor, or maybe a key, to a community. We have belonged to enormous, modern libraries with skylights and coffee bars, and we have belonged to tiny libraries tucked into strip malls where the smell of grease from the restaurant next door permeates the plaster and carpet.

The libraries in our lives have been places for story time, magic shows, children’s theatre, and Girl Scout meetings. We check out movies, music, toys, and of course, books; audio books, big books, wordless books, pictureless books, and everything in between. As a teacher, I use my library often for research and for gathering materials to supplement my curriculum. Not long ago, I stumbled into a much bigger facility that has opened new opportunities for learning, both for me and my students. 

The Library of Congress

In 1800, President John Adams set aside five thousand dollars to establish a library for the members of Congress to use. Sadly, that collection was lost when British troops set fire to Washington, DC in 1814. Thomas Jefferson, who owned the largest collection of books in the United States, offered Congress his personal library, which was later moved to the rebuilt Capitol and has been expanding ever since. What started as a place for legislative members to do research now houses more than 144 million diverse items, including 33 million books.

Today, the Library of Congress is not only a place for legislative research, but also the copyright agency of the United States, a world-famous center for scholarship, a national symbol of an educated, free-thinking society, and a teacher’s treasure box that will change your lessons for the better. If you are looking for ways to implement the Common Core State Standards, the Library of Congress is an excellent tool. Let me introduce you to a few of its features.

Resources Await

The home page features the collection’s highlights, a rich and diverse record of historic newspapers, film, sound recordings, maps, and photographs. Click on any of them to expose your class to an abundance of primary sources while addressing the following standard:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.9 Analyze the relationship between a primary and secondary source on the same topic.

The collection can be searched by topic, date, person, and location which makes it easy to find relevant material.

Abundant Primary Sources

When your class is ready to study oral history, the diversity of audio recordings available from the American Folklife Research Center will impress upon your students the value in documenting history this way. Traditional songs, interviews, films, and stories are helpful in understanding a culture and its evolution.

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.5.6 Analyze multiple accounts of the same event or topic, noting important similarities and differences in the point of view they represent.

This requires students in grades four and five to look at a single event from multiple perspectives. When studying WWII, pupils can listen to narratives from soldiers and families, examine news articles, and look at war advertisements. This three hundred-sixty degree approach develops their ability to synthesize information, weigh it, and come to a conclusion. The Library of Congress provides a multitude of resources to provide them with the information to do this.

Political Cartoons 

When studying the presidential election last fall, your class could have gained a broader perspective of political campaigns by studying the vast collection of political cartoons offered by the Library of Congress. The elections of Andrew Jackson, James K. Polk, and Zachary Taylor can be compared to more modern cartoons featuring Bill Clinton and George Bush. Such an activity would be one way to fulfill the following standard:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.2 Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Poetry to My Ears

The Library of Congress also serves as the home for the country’s poet laureate. A wide variety of contemporary poetry can be found on the website. When learning to read poetry, it is helpful to have good models. The website features over 2,000 sound recordings of poets reading their own work. Have your class note the places where pauses are made, the way one line bleeds into another and the weight that a pause gives to a line or word. Another interesting tool to help learners understand poetry is to listen to a webcast in which the writer discusses a poem in depth. Learning the craft from someone in the field is a valuable experience that isn’t always possible. Complete both exercises and your class will have worked on skills outlined in this standard:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.7.5 Analyze how a drama’s or poem’s form or structure (e.g., soliloquy, sonnet) contributes to its meaning.

Early Films and Documentaries

A final section of the library I will point out is the collection of films. An actuality film from 1904 takes the viewer on a tour of the Westinghouse factory; very valuable when studying early 20th century industrialization. Several films follow President McKinley, from his second inauguration to his funeral. It brings to life not only the president, but also the time period in which he lived. The Spanish-American War is chronicled in sixty-eight films and was the first war that the media recorded this way. Such a resource would be helpful in developing the skills found in several Core Standards:

  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.6-8.7 Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.9 Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.
  • CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RH.11-12.7 Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

I could go on, but we would be here for days. The collections are vast, and the rewards are many. February is Library Lovers’ Month, so fall in love with the Library of Congress. You and your students will be glad you did.

More Lesson Ideas:

Researching the Past

In this middle school project, learners use technology to research westward expansion. One of the primary focuses of the project is to use the Cornell Note-Taking system for recording information. Use the Library of Congress to gather webpages, photographs, and maps related to this subject.

Ben Franklin Timeline

Celebrate the achievements of Ben Franklin with a research-based lesson for younger elementary children.  Each participant researches one of Mr. Franklin’s many contributions to society and writes a paragraph on it. They then add the event to a class timeline of Ben Franklin’s life. The Library of Congress features a description of each of his inventions, as well as notes written by Benjamin Franklin about it.

Digging Up Artifacts On Line

Here is a lesson from the New York Times. Pupils learn how the digitization of primary source documents is changing how we learn about the past. Learners work in small groups to analyze a primary source document and explain its historical significance. They answer a series of questions regarding the importance of preserving primary sources and present their findings. The lesson encourages the use of the Library of Congress’ American Memory site.