Tag Archives: how to research

Researching at the Library of Congress

(A snow day post…)

A bird's eye view of Capitol Hill and the Library of Congress

If you don’t do research, you should find yourself a project just so you have an excuse to visit the Library of Congress (LOC).  If you have never visited, you should–it is very cool and entertaining, more accessible than many of the Smithsonian museums and better located for other amenities, plus you can spend a half-day or a full-day there and not feel like you have left most of it unseen.  (I posted about the LOC earlier for folks who want to visit:  “The Library of Congress”.)

As great as it is to take the tour and play with the “The Passport to Knowledge” at each of the exhibits, the experience researching at the LOC is awesome!  While the facility exists first and foremost to benefit Congress–think about that for a moment and see if it doesn’t give you a flicker of hope for our country’s future–it is also intended to benefit the country as a vast receptacle of knowledge that will contribute to the greater good for America’s citizens.  So, take advantage!  This is a primer on doing research at the LOC and quite frankly will only scratch the surface because there is so much within its facilities.

The beautiful Thomas Jefferson building (LOC)

Your first stop should probably be the the LOC’s website, where you can get the lay of the land and IM with a librarian to help plan your visit.  Your next stop should be the James Madison building.  Here you get your library card–it typically takes a few minutes.  The building is at the top of the street from the Capitol South Metro station on the Orange and Blue line.  (Union Station is only a few blocks away and is on the Red line.  Transferring takes the most time on Metro, so if you are already on the Red line just go to Union Station.)  The library card station is one floor below the main entrance and both the security guards and the help desk just inside the main entrance can guide you.

The John Adams building (LOC)

There is security because these are federal buildings.  Don’t bring blades–even scissors, although some guards will ignore them I wouldn’t risk it–and travel light.  Put those items that run afoul of metal detectors in your bag or coat so you can quickly run it through the x-ray machines (while this will speed your entrance, it does not necessarily help you with slower tourists who may be in line in front of you–fortunately most of them will be at the Jefferson building).  Your next step is to determine which reading room you need.  The folks who get you your card will give you a quick orientation.  For some projects you have to go to a specific reading room because the materials do not leave that room.  If time is of the essence than you will want to go to the correct room to get your materials quickly.  If you are using a variety of materials, such as books and journals, you have a little more time, or brought some materials to work on with you, go to the Jefferson’s Main Reading Room.  This is also where preparation is so important, because you can pre-request materials online and have them waiting for you in the Main Reading Room or a specific reading room.

A map of the Library of Congress facilities on Capitol Hill (more exist in Maryland!)

Let’s say you do this and are going to the Main Reading Room, you will never work in such a beautiful and, in my opinion, optimal setting.  So, enter at the Madison building, get your card and walk through the tunnels to the Jefferson building so you do not have to do the security drill again and you bypass the tourists–also allows you to avoid the bizarre DC weather.  Once you get to the Jefferson building (follow the signs–it is not quite as obvious as it might be), go to the coat check–this is mandatory!  Here, you will hand over your bags and coats.  My advice is that you wear a layer or two–I typically find that I get cold after sitting there for a while.  Travelling light is important, too, because you will carry everything in by hand or in provided clear plastic bags–which I love and constantly reused at my campus library!  This includes your laptop and its accessories, pencils (pens are not allowed in some reading rooms!!) and notebooks!  Go find a spot to sit and note the seat number.  Then submit your book requests with your seat number at the desk or pick up the resources that are waiting for you.  Assuming you find what you need, but don’t finish with all of your materials you have the option of holding the books for a week and retrieving them from a room off the Main Reading Room.  Remember you can’t take them with you!

The Jefferson's Main Reading room (LOC)

Use your time wisely and be focused about what you want to do when you are there.  I liked having two projects to work on, because  I could switch my focus if I was hitting a block or getting burned out, but I have also been guilty of over-stimulating myself and not making the best use of my time.  While we are talking about the actual practice of researching let me throw in a quick note about note-taking: Be methodical!  Put your bibliographical information at the top of page (be it in Word or your notebook) and write down the page numbers for each note.  This is a good habit to get into–especially if you have previously been stacking and hoarding library books in your room all semester long.  This will make your research process much more useful to you two years later after you’ve completed that project and realize you need something from that research which you did not include in your paper.  You can’t own all the books you need, but you can take good and useful notes, which may be almost as useful.  (The key is being able to do it quickly, which is something I still struggle at . .  maybe from lack of practice while a student!)  Finally, if you are stuck ask for help.  The librarians know there business and if you are in a specific reading room they really know their stuff.  I was amazed at how they could help me even if they were not experts in my field.  They work for you and work out solutions.  (A shot out to librarians everywhere!)

Pulling an all-dayer is possible, of course, but you need to plan carefully.  For food, you can get “off campus” if you need a break and walk a couple blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue (use the researcher’s entrances and exits on the back side of Jefferson–right next to the coat check), but be aware that the area can get a bit crowded and busy if Congress is in session and the weather is nice.  Otherwise pack your lunch and check it in with bag and coat.  There are places to eat and even purchase food in the LOC–so, again preparation–know the location closest to where you are researching.

This should get you started.  The LOC has most books published in this country, many published abroad, journals, newspapers, photos, audio and video archives.  It is a great place to visit and research.  It is worth developing a project just so you can take advantage of the facility–consider it your duty as an American citizen!


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Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

A metaphor to explain what historians do

An Introduction for history classes

Each week when I teach Western Civilization 101 or 102, I pair a question with the material for that week’s unit.  This question is designed to introduce students to the field of history using that week’s content as a way to teach how historians do their thing, as a way to drive the methodology point home.  (I do this both to introduce students to historical method and to introduce students to the fallibility and controversy of the field–something lost in most history textbooks, museums and documentaries, but useful for citizens in the U.S. where there is an information overload.)  For example, in the week we study the Greeks, I ask, “What are a historian’s sources?”  Thus, I can introduce the literate society of the Greeks that recorded earlier oral tradition and really introduced history, drama, philosophy and political discourse to Western Civilization.  In so doing, it is also possible to introduce the methods historians apply to these different primary sources types.

I begin with this concept on day 1, where I introduce the course with the question, “What is history?”  The purpose being to introduce methodology to separate history from other studies of the past.  We read a brief excerpt from Sam Wineburg (Historical Thinking) about the importance of studying history, in an ever-shrinking world, where one is taught the skills to recognize that the context of a document may be foreign and require research and careful consideration ahead of assumptions.  (Note:  Whether Wineburg is read in class actually depends on the class format–it is hard to fit him into a 50 minute class!)  We also read a brief excerpt from Martha Howell and Walter Prevenier’s From Reliable Sources in which they explain that history is something people write about the past–it is constructed and requires reliable sources to be reliable, itself.  This is the point where I generally introduce a metaphor to help students understand what a historian does and what those sources are.

The Detective

Today, on TV you can watch fictional detectives at work every night: NCIS, CSI, Law & Order, Castle, Criminal Minds, Cold Case, Bones, etc.  The popularity of these shows has contributed to reality TV shows and regular shows dedicated to following actual criminal cases.  So, people, including our students, are acquainted with the methods (more or less) by which detectives collect evidence to build a case against criminals.  Using this fairly common “knowledge”, I set up some comparisons to explain how historians do their research, such as seeking clues from witnesses by reading primary sources.


  • Investigation
  • Crimes
  • Interview witnesses
  • Training and experiences
  • Evidence
    • Clues
    • Observation


  • Research
  • Questions
  • Read primary sources
  • Secondary sources
  • Evidence
    • Realia
    • Names, geography
    • Events

The Prosecutor

Just as detectives investigate in order to build a case for the prosecution (or Matlock!), so, too, do historians investigate in order to build a case for a paper or book.  So, where the historian’s research is to detective work, the historian’s written argument is to the prosecutor’s court case.  The publication, the written case, is the presentation of the evidence that has been gathered to convince a jury of one’s peers about what actually happened, and why one’s sources are most reliable and should be considered in a certain light.  It is remarkably similar to the process the prosecutor follows–even needing to consider other points of view and address critics, just as the prosecutor must do with the defendant’s case.


  • Opening statement
  • Interviewing witnesses on the stand
  • Presentation of physical evidence in exhibits
  • Closing statements
  • Oral arguments
  • Rebutting the defense’s case


  • Introduction
  • Citing primary sources in your text
  • Citing archaeological evidence
  • Conclusion
  • Written arguments
  • Taking into account critics and opposing view points

The Workshop

For each week we spend a class (or in accelerated courses and once-a-week courses, a portion of class) working specifically on the content that helps demonstrate the point that the question is teaching.  This typically means looking at specific primary or secondary sources.  For example, in Week 3 of Western Civilization 101, the question, “Is research the story of the victors/elite?” is asked.  This week’s content is Egypt and to a lesser extent the Hittites.  When considering this question, we look at the monumental evidence left behind by the Egyptians–covering a general history of the culture.  The homework includes reading excerpts from The Book of the Dead, so we discuss the Egyptian afterlife.  The PowerPoint ends with a look at the archaeology of the tombs and worker cities built around the tombs.  The rest of the week, the content continues to circle back to this question and demonstrates how the losers and lower strata of society can be found and accessed by historians (and archaeologists, too), while also showing that it takes a slightly different approach in order to get there.  This helps to provide some context for the students so they can try their hand at some of the detective work.

The Practicum

The practicum is either done on Wednesday, or in the middle of class (again, depending on format).  This portion of class is dedicated to working with sources to investigate a particular aspect of the culture.  It is a specific attempt to get students to try their hand at the detective work.  We will often draw up outlines, initially as a class and later in small groups, to begin practicing building and presenting a case.

The Discussion

The week ends with a discussion that, it is hoped, will help students retain and be more capable with the skills and content that historians use and learn.  It is the opportunity for students to practice being the prosecutor, often by presenting cases that were built in small groups during the practicum and other times discussing and debating controversies.

* * *

An additional wrinkle that I will be testing this semester is a homework assignment to bring in three documents.  The point is to try this detective work with a familiar context and to get to know each other a little better.  Examples of appropriate material includes a birthday card from a relative, a certificate of achievement, an e-mail or a to-do list.  (If you try this, be sure to also be very clear about what is not appropriate for the assignment.)  The metaphor, thus, introduces concepts of historical method in a recognizable way that is reinforced weekly.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning