Publication Date

May 1, 2012




At numerous colleges and universities across the nation, many students are reluctant to enroll in introductory-level history courses because of their negative views of the discipline formed during their K–12 learning experiences. History instruction, particularly at the high school level, stereotypically consists of lectures, textbook readings, and written assignments, and culminates in standardized tests of students' ability to recall seemingly random dates and facts. Such instruction strips history of its inherent messiness. It does not model for students the exciting work of uncovering history's complexity by investigating primary source materials for evidence and seeking corroboration among secondary sources. With little firsthand experience in historical inquiry, few students enter college inspired to pursue their own research.

However, a transformation in history pedagogy is taking place in elementary and secondary schools, and it has the potential to influence students' sentiments toward the discipline. The Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) program is contributing to this burgeoning movement. With its mission to provide better access to more readily available digitized primary sources, coupled with a greater emphasis on inquiry, the Library of Congress is playing a key role in supporting the improvement of history education locally and nationally. Over the past 15 years, the institution has been a pioneer in making its content, services, and expertise accessible via the Web. As the national library, it is committed to increasing direct access to its universal collection of knowledge. Furthermore, the Library strives not only to help users find what they need but to understand what they have found and, in the case of K–12 teachers, to provide the instructional tools for teaching primary sources.

Library of Congress TPS Program

This transformation of history pedagogy began with efforts to digitize manuscripts, maps, photographs, prints, and other primary sources for public consumption. Historical and cultural collections previously accessible only to researchers, aged 18 and older, with the time and resources to visit the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, are now at the fingertips of people of all ages, worldwide, through thelibrary's website. Included among its more than 19 million digitized items are many of the nation’s most beloved historical treasures, along with countless lesser-known gems, all freely available to anyone with internet access.

James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, initiated this institution-wide digitization endeavor with the American Memory pilot program in 1990 by distributing the materials via CD-ROM to 44 libraries and schools nationwide. The Library’s Teaching with Primary Sources program, authorized in fiscal year 2006 by a Congressional mandate, builds upon this early outreach to K–12 audiences by partnering with colleges, school districts, and other educational organizations. The Library administers the program to deliver professional development for teachers using the Library of Congress’ digitized primary sources to design high-quality instructional units. Members of the TPS Educational Consortium assist in designing the TPS program and offer TPS professional development for pre-and in-service teachers on an ongoing basis, year round, that includes workshops and institutes, online courses, graduate courses, and teacher mentoring. With widespread and bipartisan support from Congress, the TPS program now comprises 28 Educational Consortium members, including 21 colleges and universities, in 17 states. In addition, regional grantees (school districts, museums, nonprofit organizations, schools of education, etc.) in 38 states and counting are awarded small grants to incorporate TPS methods and materials into their professional development for teachers. In fiscal 2011 alone, the library and its partners reached nearly 20,000 teachers nationwide through the TPS program.

Strategies and Resources for Teaching with Primary Sources

Free and open access to the raw materials of history is not enough for K–12 classroom teachers. They also need the strategies and resources for effective, relevant, and rigorous primary source instruction. All TPS professional development offerings for history teachers convey the same message: teaching with primary sources helps students ask meaningful questions, develop critical thinking skills, and acquire new knowledge. Whether students are learning about the Civil War, the dust bowl migration, or the civil rights movement, working with primary sources models the investigative process used by historians, and encourages active student engagement at all stages of the learning process. For example, a lesson on the Declaration of Independence in which students compare Thomas Jefferson's handwritten "original Rough draught" with the final version adopted by Congress on July 4, 1776, illustrates differences in word choice and intent, and hence demands greater scrutiny of Jefferson's language and the meaning he attached to his words. Also available at the library's web site is an online interactive program that assists students in sourcing the documents that Jefferson drew upon for ideas and phrases (

Additional instructional resources can be found at the library's resource page for teachers, Library staff and TPS partners have developed ready-to-use materials, such as primary source sets and lesson plans. While intended for the K–12 audience, these resources may be easily adapted for use in higher education settings. Primary source sets such as Immigration Challenges for New Americans can help college freshmen experience how primary sources and inquiry are essential to historical investigation. Analyzing conflicting perspectives from this particular source set—their purposes, intended audiences, and biases—challenges students’ preconceptions about late 19th-century immigration. Answering the focus question for the lesson—”What political tensions between American ideals and reality resulted from immigration in the late 19th century?”—will require students to examine additional primary and secondary sources to gain a broader understanding of the historical context. Instructors may use one of the Library’s many other primary source sets available on an array of historical topics to supplement course readers, which saves research time and may lead to new primary sources for future course use.

Teaching with primary sources provides opportunities for students of all ages to learn and apply historians' multifaceted inquiry-based thinking processes to their academic studies. To become informed citizens, students need instruction that encourages them to challenge assumptions, seek evidence, form reasoned conclusions, and confront the complexity of not only the past but also the present. In accordance with its vision, the Library of Congress supports primary source instruction to "… foster a free and informed society by building, preserving and providing resources for human creativity, wisdom and achievement." Further, the library endeavors "… to place these resources at the fingertips of the American people, their elected representatives and the world for their mutual prosperity, enlightenment and inspiration." Through the TPS program, the library partners with the educational community to inspire a new generation of library patrons to learn about our nation's past creativity in order to contribute to its future.

is an educational resources specialist at the Library of Congress. She received an MAT from the George Washington University's Museum Education Program, and a BA in journalism with a second major in history from Indiana University.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License. Attribution must provide author name, article title, Perspectives on History, date of publication, and a link to this page. This license applies only to the article, not to text or images used here by permission.