Tona Hangen

Favorite Primary Source Caches

Here are digital history resources that I find I use over and over again in my courses. This list is by no means exhaustive, but these are places I have found to be consistently useful and around which I have successfully built research and writing assignments. No particular order. I also have a separate list of links that represent the best of the vernacular web, things I have run across in my RSS feed or in trolling the web.

American Memory (Library of Congress) – among my favorite collections are the FSA-OWI photographs, the Chinese in California, the Haymarket Affair, American West photographs from the Denver Public Library, WPA Posters, Federal Writers’ Project Slave Narratives, and the “Votes for Women” Woman’s Suffrage collections.

Library of Congress Flickr photostream – a novel way to search a large swath of the LOC’s public domain image collection. I really appreciate how users are invited to tag the photos and thus shape the collection itself.

LIFE photos on Google – LIFE magazine has done a terrific service of placing thousands of its photographs, both those which were in the magazine and others in their collections, into a huge free digital archive which is text-searchable through Google. I do wish that all the photos carried detailed information about their date and location; most of them just seem to have the title of the article for which they were taken. All that aside, this is an amazing visual record of the 20th century.

Journals of Lewis and Clark (University of Nebraska) – a solid standby for me in introducing students to the concept of a primary source. This collection is beautifully digitized, a monumental effort really worth praising. The journey of the Corps of Discovery is a story students may think they know, until they start reading the actual entries themselves, and suddenly they, along with the Corps, are full of wonder and questions and tiny unsolved mysteries, and often just plain confused and lost on the plains or in the mountains. Plus, students always get a huge kick out of Clark’s creative spelling. A typical assignment for me is to send students to read a (somewhat randomly chosen) week and try to establish context, location, and a story just from those entries.

Wet with Blood (Chicago Historical Society) – I use this virtual exhibit to start my US History II course, which begins with the death of Abraham Lincoln (heavily informed by Drew Gilpin Faust’s book This Republic of Suffering). The exhibit tries (with mixed success, I think) to replicate the experience that curators and forensic historians have when they investigate a historic artifact. In my class it leads to a short paper about historical objects, inviting students to introduce me to an object owned by their family which is more than 50 years old and from which I could learn about them. These are often very poignant papers to read, and students make a vivid connection between their own objects and this tragic, bloodstained cloak in the CHS’s collection.

Shaping the Values of Youth: Sunday School Books in 19th Century America (Michigan State) – a great resource for getting at mainstream Protestant sensibilities or the Benevolent Empire in antebellum America. I have used this collection in courses on American religion and also in a women’s history course during our unit on didactic literature – there are few things as intentionally didactic as a tract or a Sunday School manual!

Documenting the American South (University of North Carolina) – I really appreciate the depth of this collection, which covers not only primary source documents but also fiction, culture, art, artifacts, even music. I’ve used it to discuss slave spirituals, the World War I homefront experience, popular culture, and what it was like to live under Jim Crow laws.

Dime Novels and Penny Dreadfuls (Stanford) – a rich collection of dime novel covers. I use this collection in courses on the American West and in my US History survey course in a unit on the representation of native Americans as the “other” in American society, but a huge portion of this collection is actually detective fiction of the early 20th century and I think it would be great to find a way to work that into some future class I teach, too. My usual assignment for the survey course is to pick 3-4 covers that have something in common, discuss the visual and thematic elements, and use them as evidence for a straightforward argument or statement about the late 19th century time period.

“There Are No Renters Here:” Homesteading a Sod House (Women of the West Museum) – a skillfully crafted virtual exhibit about Nebraska sodbusters. I’ve used this in survey classes, in courses on the American West, and in women’s history courses.

Women Working, 1800-1930 (Harvard University Open Collections) – a huge searchable archive of images and documents relating to women’s work. I’m a big fan of the factory photographs from the Baker Business Library collection, but there are resources here I have yet to tap into including trade catalogs, diaries, women’s periodicals (including the Lowell Offering) and themed exhibits with lesson plans. Brava, Harvard.

Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893 (U of Virginia) – I have an inexplicable fascination with this event, I think partly because it’s an American Atlantis – an entire city that sprang up, and then completely disappeared within a year. We have nothing left of it but artifacts, documents, photographs and memories. Virtual tours are thus especially handy. I use the event in various ways: to discuss Gilded Age American ideas of progress and industrialization, as a meditation on race and empire at the turn of the century, to frame Turner’s thesis, and as a harbinger of commercialized amusements to come. There’s also a Flickr set of photographs of the fair from the Brooklyn Museum, mainly of buildings. Some additional links & resources on the 1893 Fair are here, in a post from my Fall 2010 seminar, “American Carnival.”

Making of America (Cornell) – a searchable database of 19th century magazines and periodicals. Since not all of Harper’s Weekly and similar periodicals are open-source, this is a quick (free) way to tap into the vast world of late 19th century popular literature.

Old Time Radio Network and Radio Lovers.com – both of these sites are free collections of old radio programs, organized either by category or title. The sound quality varies (if you want the good stuff, you can subscribe to the reasonably priced RUSC.com instead), but it’s an easy way to give students a sound of the 1930s or 1940s. I also use the “A Day on Radio” (21 Sept 1939) posted in the University of Virginia’s “America in the 1930s” collection. In a typical assignment, students listen to 2 programs for a total of about an hour, and write about what they hear, and what themes or historical currents they can glean from the broadcasts. The program usually have the ads in with them too, so there’s plenty for a good discussion about marketing, corporate America, and the role of advertising in early broadcast media.

New Deal Network – a useful gateway site for various digital resources on the Depression and the New Deal, helpfully organized into collections just the right size for a single assignment.

Colorado Coal Field War Project -an impressive site based on a teacher’s institute exploring the history of the 1913 Colorado coal fields war, which resulted in the Ludlow Massacre of spring 1914. The website includes archaeological evidence, photographs, a clear & unbiased account of the event (which students could easily compare with, say, Wikipedia, or a hagiographic site devoted to “Mother Bloor,” one of the UMW organizers), and resources for teachers. Useful for labor history, social history, the survey course, and my course on the American West.

JARDA Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (Calisphere) – I love this beautifully designed website, and the material in this archive is stunning. I have used this in survey courses and in my social history course. I really like that the collection has both documents (innovatively displayed) and artwork from interned Japanese Americans, as well as supplementary documents like the reports of non-Japanese teachers who worked in the schools in the camps. Students always find this archive revelatory and moving.

Historic Newspapers – the link takes you to a catchall blog post written for my US History II survey class in Fall 2009. The assignment asks students to locate 2 different articles about an event from the late 19th century, and evaluate the sources’ reliability by comparing them to one another. Obviously the research is the hardest part of this paper, and I am always on the lookout for open-source digitized collections of late 19th century newspapers. The “Brooklyn Eagle” deserves special mention among this list of free searchable newspaper databases, but they’re all good.

The Whole World Was Watching: An Oral History of 1968 (Brown University/South Kingstown High School) – this interesting archive of oral histories is a HS-higher ed collaboration, interviewing people about their experiences in the tumultuous year of 1968. I think the value of these particular oral histories as primary sources is mixed and rather limited, but I think the project itself is dynamite.

Rutgers Oral History Archive (Rutgers University) – this is a treasure trove of oral histories from Cold War, Korean War, WW2 and Vietnam conflict military veterans.

Private Art’s War – this well-designed site collects and publishes the World War II correspondence of Private Art Pranger, an ordinary soldier who fought in Normandy and in the Battle of the Bulge. I find the collection particularly useful for discussing historical scale – the war looks very different summarized in a textbook than it does on the ground, up close, to a soldier. One of my favorite assignments using this collection asks students to “interview” Private Art. Their questions can be anything, but the answers have to be direct quotations from Private Art’s letters. This permits some creative, entertaining and poignant “mashups” of the historical sources, and students often find writing this paper to be one of the most challenging and interesting of their assignments. Without realizing it, students thus gain experience with the skill of interrogation of historical texts, by literally asking it questions and mining it deeply for specific answers.

TV Clips of the 1950s – the link goes to a post written for the US History Survey, Fall 2010, compiling YouTube and Internet Archive clips for a taste of television programming in the 1950s, from anthology drama series to news programs, sitcoms, Westerns, zippy commercial jingles, variety shows, game shows, and the unlikely televangelist Bishop Sheen. I’ve also included Elvis on the Milton Berle show, and the closing moments of Edward R. Murrow’s triumphal “See it Now” of March 9, 1954. Hopefully most of the links will stay live, but of course, old TV on YouTube is notoriously unstable.

The National Jukebox – a project of the Library of Congress, archiving a huge collection of Victor Talking Machine Company recordings from 1900-1925. Potential treasure trove of early 20th century sound. See here for more information.

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Header Image: Adapted from Niki Feijens

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