Linking to learning

What’s new in social studies?

The Internet has made available primary documents and multimedia material that can enrich and enliven the teaching of history. By studying the thousands of documents, letters, photographs and video and audio recordings of historic and everyday events archived on the Internet, students connect to the past in ways that were not possible 20 years ago.

One of the best places to start viewing and downloading U.S. documents is at Our Documents where you can view the top 100 milestone documents of the U.S. experiment with democracy. View the original proposal for independence in 1776 and follow the nation’s journey to the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to learn that our country is still a work in progress.

This website includes a section called “Tools for Educators,” which features “how-to” advice to help integrate the material into the social studies curriculum and creative ways to introduce students to the significance of these milestone documents.

The Library of Congress’ American Memory is the standard resource for almost everything about the nation, covering subjects like Ansel Adams’ photographs of the Japanese internment during World War II, recordings of American English dialect, Walt Whitman’s notebooks and slave narratives from the Federal Writers Project.

If you want a broader perspective, go to the Library of Congress site and delve into such diverse archives as the Armenian literary tradition, historic newspapers and ancient manuscripts from the libraries of Timbuktu. You can also view a digital version of the only extant copy of Martin Waldseemüller’s map of the known world in 1507, which portrayed the New World as a separate continent, a revolutionary idea at the time.

The University of Pennsylvania Libraries has cataloged historical newspapers, including such gems as the Brooklyn Daily Eagle going back to 1841 and the Freedom Journal, which was the first African-American-owned-and-operated newspaper in the United States and published in New York City from 1827 to 1829.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, then the New York City Municipal Archives Gallery speaks volumes about the history and growth of the city. More than 800,000 photos document the city’s life, construction, businesses, schools and neighborhoods through the 20th century. The Atlantic’s photography blogger Alan Taylor featured the historic photos in his “In Focus” blog in April. Pay close attention to the photos of Eugene de Salignac.

Recently, the Nelson Mandela Centre of Memory launched a website with digitized copies of Nelson Mandela’s letters, photos and other documents from his long walk to freedom. A collaborative effort with the Google Cultural Institute, the site contains an archive of Mandela’s life and legacy. Google is planning additional sites featuring other historical figures of the 20th century.

Seventeen Osama bin Laden letters and documents captured during the raid of his compound in Abbottabad are online at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. The declassified documents are in the original Arabic and were translated to English before their release to the public.

Historians say that to understand the present and catch a glimpse of the future, you have to have a clear knowledge of the past. Studying primary documents adds authenticity to historical research. Now that many of these documents are online, everyone can view them and draw their own conclusions about the past.

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