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While rummaging in grandma's attic, have you ever discovered a box of old photographs and marveled at the images, never to know who is pictured. Or found old newspapers, magazines, or sheet music and wondered how they survived the ravages of time? Imagine seeing the handwritten journal entry of Walt Whitman's observation at the Battle of Antietam or viewing the only known picture of Lincoln at Gettysburg. Now you can reconnect with our nation’s history through the National Digital Library's American Memory online collections presented by the Library of Congress. With new processes for preservation and imaging, the Library of Congress has undertaken a massive effort to make diverse collections of primary source material available electronically.

Let's journey through history from the hand written documents of the founding fathers to the social and cultural landscape of a growing nation. In words, pictures, and sounds the American Memory collections offer us the unique opportunity to dig through original source material and bring living history into our classrooms. CyberBee brings you highlights from a few of the current collections and ways to use them with your students.

In Words:

Words and Deeds in American History

Read Benedict Arnold's plea to George Washington for his wife's safety after his traitorous act to the country and Washington's compassionate response. Glimpse the personal side of Theodore Roosevelt by reading an illustrated fable he sent to his young son in 1890. You probably won't find stories like these in a social studies textbook. By tapping into Words and Deeds in American History, you can give students insight about individuals in the context of the time period. The manuscript division holds the papers of 23 presidents from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge as well as material on African-American and Women's History, literature, invention, and law. Draft copies of Langston Hughes's “Ballad of Booker T.” and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's “The Village Blacksmith” are additional gems you will find.

American Life Histories Manuscripts from the Federal Writers Project, 1936 - 1940

Although rich in content, the American Life Histories Manuscripts are more difficult to search because some are lengthy documents and none are indexed by topic. With persistence, however, you will discover magical first-person reflections from individuals like J. W. Wilson of Lincoln, Nebraska, who describes his musical experience at school:

We all went to singing school and were taught the rudiments of music. The singing master had a tuning fork to get the proper pitch. I remember one piece:

Twenty froggies went to school
Down beside the rushy pool
Twenty little coats of green
Twenty vests all white and clean.
We must be on time said they
First we study then we play.
Master Bull Frog brave and stern
Called their classes in their turn,
Twenty Froggies grew up fast
Great Frogs they became at last
Now they sit on other logs
Teaching other little Frogs.

Alexander Graham Bell

Read Alexander Graham Bell’s notebook entry of March 10, 1876 as he describes the successful experiment with the telephone and the words he spoke to his assistant “Mr. Watson – come here – I want to see you.” View the sketches he made of the telephone design along with his hand written notations. In addition there are special presentations, including a timeline, family tree, and information about the inventor and scientist that will be very useful in the classroom.

Mr. Lincoln’s Virtual Library

The preview for this collection looks at the Emancipation Proclamation and Lincoln’s Assassination. An introduction, timeline, and gallery are presented on each topic. Some of the interesting items include broadsides published at the time of Lincoln’s death. Included in the Martyr of Liberty is an adaptation of a quote from Macbeth, Lincoln’s favorite Shakespeare play.

In Pictures:

Taking the Long View: Panoramic Photographs 1851-1991

A unique collection of panoramic photographs shows cityscapes, landscapes, and portraits. In this example from the Michigan State Fair in 1911, President William Howard Taft is seen addressing a large crowd. Several have decided the best view is from a tree. Notice the attire of the men and women. Check out those hats!

Early Motion Pictures 1897-1916

Stroll down the street of a turn-of-the-century fish market in New York City, witness the funeral cortege of William McKinley, get a birds-eye-view of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire. These and more are part of the early motion picture collection.

Buckaroos in Paradise: Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982

For a fascinating look at cattle ranching in Nevada, don’t miss Buckaroos in Paradise. By viewing a series of videoclips you will learn about branding, haying, and cattle feeding. You could incorporate these movies and materials about the Ninety-Six Ranch into a lesson for students who have never had this experience.

In Sounds:

Voices from the Dust Bowl: The Charles L. Todd and Robert Sonkin Migrant Worker Collection 1940-1941

A kaleidoscope of folk culture is preserved in this collection of square dance calls, traditional ballads, cowboy songs, and storytelling. Vester Whitworth sings while Zelmer Ward plays guitar in their rendition of “Runnin' Stewball.” Note that dialect is approximated in the text:

Oh Stewball, Oh Stewball, he holds a high head
His mane and his tail are as fine as silk thread.

He's born in New England and he run in St. Paul
And the name that I give aim is Runnin' Stewball.

American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election, 1918-1920

Hearing the delivery of a speech is much more dramatic than reading the text decades later. Thanks to the foresight of St. Louis attorney Guy Golterman, prominent Americans were invited to repeat their orations as part of the Nation's Forum Project. Harding, Coolidge, Cox, and others recorded World War I and 1920 election speeches. In “Safeguard America,” Corinne Roosevelt Robinson gives firm and resounding support to two Republican candidates:

"I am behind Senator Harding and Governor Coolidge for President and
Vice-President of the United States for two reasons. First, because
they are the nominees of the Republican party, and secondly because
I believe them to be 100 percent American, of true patriotism, who have
not failed to show marked efficiency and ability in public office".

American Variety Stage

Introduce your students to audio recordings from early vaudeville. “Over There,” a World War I music hit, could be compared to “From A Distance,” a Bette Midler tune popular during the Gulf War. The banter between a fiddle playing, wise-cracking hillbilly and a sophisticated city slicker in “The Arkansas Traveler,” could be compared to contemporary stand-up comedy routines:

City Slicker: Say, there's a hole in the roof of your house.
Why don't you have it fixed?

Hillbilly: Cause it's been rainin' lately.

City Slicker: Yes, but why don't you fix it when it isn't raining?

Hillbilly: Well, when it don't rain, it don't leak.

California Gold: Northern California Folk Music from the Thirties

Introduce your students to a Mexican dance, a Portuguese children’s song, or a Cowboy’s Lament. This ethnographic collection from Northern California has over 35 hours of folk music recorded in twelve languages representing numerous ethnic groups and 185 musicians.

[Cowboy's?] Lament
" Let sixteen gamblers come handle my coffin,
Let sixteen cowboys come sing me a song,
Take me to the graveyard and lay the sod o'er me,
For I'm a poor cowboy and I know I've [done?] wrong.
We beat the drum slowly and played the fife slowly,
And bitterly wept as we bore him along;
For we all loved our [comrade?], so brave, young and handsome,
We all loved our comrade although he'd [done?] wrong."

Special Presentation:

Some collections provide special presentations that explore a theme represented in the collection. To Form a More Perfect Union: An Introduction to the Congressional Documents explores the work of the Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention from 1774-1789. This selected collection of broadsides highlights the road to independence. From organizing for war to creating the Constitution, student historians will gain a better understanding of how the 13 colonies united to defend themselves. Many pages are illustrated with historic engravings.

The Learning Page

One of the most impressive features of the American Memory Site is the Learning Page. This area is designed to assist educators and students in using the collections. Learn More About It delves deeper into individual collections by pointing to specific concepts to search, posing questions to answer, and suggesting themes to probe. In the activity area, students can be historical detectives by following hints and clues, solve a jigsaw puzzle, or study immigration by viewing photographs and reading oral histories. Feature Presentations bring together items from across the American Memory collections to investigate a common theme such as women pioneers, presidents, and elections. On The Learning Page, there are also projects, search guides, a framework for using primary resources, information about copyright, and sample lessons to use with students. Especially helpful are the tips for accessing, printing, and saving materials in American Memory.


Originally Published May/Jun 1999

Updated March 11, 2015
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