Papers. Photographs. Books. So old it seems they just might crumble at times. But how exciting! To be right in the thick of history, instantly transported back to the moment when the letter was written or the photograph shot. No longer a passive consumer of history, but a new kind of participant, someone who has touched and seen it with their own eyes.
That’s the beauty of primary sources, of course, something we often talk about using in education, but rarely do. It used to be difficult. Field trips to the archives wouldn’t exactly be tittilating for students, and the archivists might have an MI.
The beauty of the Internet today is that those dusty old papers, photographs, and books can come to you. To the classroom. To the students. Through the Internet.
Archives across the world are digitizing their holdings. The ramifications of this trend on education are enormous. Students living in Oregon can “travel” to the National Archives without going to D.C. Students living in Florida can discover the history of the Pacific Northwest without leaving the sunshine state.
From a pedagogical standpoint, we speak a lot about inquiry driven education, of guiding students to find answers rather than simply giving them answers. Digital archives allows us to take this pedagogy into historical education in a whole new way.
Students can read one of FDR’s fireside chats from 1933. They can explore documents and photographs regarding the internment of Japanese Americans. They can examine propaganda from World War II. They can compare maps of Indian Territory over the years. Students can remember 9/11. They can investigate the Venona papers and explore indigenous Alaskan culture. They can read the death warrant for John J. Kehoe and find information on the Pennsylvania canal system. They can listen to the voices of civil rights in Mississippi or read the journal of a Freedom School teacher.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg.