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Online Primary Sources from Manuscript Division Collections

How to Find Them:

The Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress is home to a wealth of primary source materials, many of which you and your students can use online. These document American history and culture from the colonial period to the present. They include papers of presidents, journals of sea captains, notebooks of inventors, manuscripts of poets, letters and diaries written by ordinary Americans, and more. You can find them at these websites:

American Memory

The Library established the American Memory program in the 1990s to digitize the Library’s Americana collections. Its contents stretch across many divisions of the Library. The Manuscript Division maintains on its home page a list of American Memory websites with Manuscript Division material. Among the most significant collections in American Memory are the Manuscript Division’s holdings of presidential papers. Thus far, the papers of four presidents (George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Abraham Lincoln) have been digitized and more are underway. Each of these websites contains time lines, bibliographies, and essays that help to provide context for the papers. Portions of these collections are also accompanied by transcriptions.

Online Exhibitions

Many online exhibitions produced by the Library, most of which were originally displayed in one of the Library’s buildings, contain Manuscript Division material. The Manuscript Division maintains on its home page a list of Virtual Exhibits in which Manuscript Division collections are represented.

Words and Deeds in American History

In honor of the Manuscript Division's centennial, its staff selected for online display approximately ninety representative documents spanning from the fifteenth century to the mid-twentieth century. The display is called Words and Deeds in American History. Included are the papers of presidents, cabinet ministers, members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, military officers and diplomats, Native Americans, reformers and political activists, artists and writers, scientists and inventors, and other prominent Americans whose lives reflect our country's evolution. A short explanatory essay accompanies each document.

World Digital Library

The World Digital Library is a joint project of UNESCO, the Library of Congress, and other libraries and cultural institutions from around the world. Digital content relating to American history from Manuscript Division holdings have been included in the World Digital Library. See, for example, the journal of Joseph Ingraham (1762-1800), a sea captain who in 1790-1792 sailed from Boston to China by way of Cape Horn, the Marquesas, Hawaii, and Nootka Sound in the ship Hope.


Counting Sheep: Unspinning the Mystery of the 1787 “Massachusetts Sheep Census” (PDF, 6.62MB)

Sheep census detail

What can a document mysteriously titled the “Massachusetts Sheep Census” tell students about the lives of ordinary people in a New England town in 1787, the year the federal Constitution was created?

Past Highlights:

George Washington’s School Copybooks, circa 1745-1747
Turnip field survey

What do the schoolbooks George Washington used as a boy tell us about his education in eighteenth-century Virginia?

Nootka canoe

Joseph Ingraham Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington DC. Online at World Digital Library, volume 4, page 205 (image 38).

How to Use Them:

The Library's Teachers Page is a clearinghouse of materials for teachers drawn from various locations on the Library of Congress website, including the Manuscript Division, and it also provides guidance on how to use them. Material is organized in formats, such as lesson plans, that are ready for you and your students to use: see the list below. The Teachers Page also offers the guide, “Using Primary Sources”.

Opportunities for Teachers to Visit the Library of Congress

Every summer the Library’s Educational Outreach division runs Summer Teachers Institutes. These routinely include presentations by Manuscript Division curators. For more information, see the schedules and resources posted to the Teachers Institutes page. An essay based on a presentation from 2010 by Julie Miller, early American history specialist in the Manuscript Division, "Counting Sheep: Unspinning the Mystery of the 1787 ‘Massachusetts Sheep Census,’” (PDF, 6.62 MB) is highlighted on this page.

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  October 7, 2011
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