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Historic Images are Everywhere

stereoscope with image

Is there a database of historic pictures that you would recommend for use in a high school history classroom?


Historic images are online, everywhere. And with the speed of cut-and-paste and right-click downloads, it's easy to grab a photo and run without validating the original source of an image, who posted it online, and whether the digitized representation corresponds to the archival version. Fragments, touchups, and images without citations often mislead.

Institutional archives and repositories, then, are likely the most logical places to find images for use in a high school classroom for at least two pedagogical reasons. Educators can count on the reliability of the source, and students can learn steps of research, citation, copyright, and critical thinking about visual evidence.

Larger, established archives are perhaps the most helpful starting points for images for secondary school classroom.

For American history, the nation's largest library, the Library of Congress (LOC) is an obvious database to consult and a virtual gold mine. But finding a direct route to historic images through the vast digitized content of the LOC website can be challenging.

Here's a roadmap. To search for digitized images on the LOC site,

  • Follow the Go option on the home page leading to American Memory.
  • You're then invited to Browse Collections by Topic
  • Select More browse options at the bottom of the lefthand column.
  • On the linked page, under Browse Collections Containing on the right, select Photos, Prints
  • From there, you're led to the search page for LOC Photos and Prints collections

Once you've entered your search terms, remember that thumbnails comprise the Gallery View—sometimes more helpful than the text listing. (And to shorten future searches, consider adding these URLs to your browser bookmarks or to your Delicious tags or Diigo folders.)

The Prints and Photographs Online Catalog is another route through LOC photographic collections. As you'd expect, the more specific your search, the more helpful the results. The broad search term, Civil War, for example, yields 10,000 hits!

Once you've found images, the next step is teaching your students how to analyze them.

Flickr Commons is another rich source of historic images. A plethora of museums, galleries, and archives from around the world—including the Library of Congress as well as local archives such as the Library of Virginia, the Brooklyn Museum, and Chicago's Field Museum—have uploaded photographs in the public domain and invite the public to tag images and to leave comments.

And for a gateway to smaller institutional archival photographic collections, please visit the Photo Archive / Historic Image Collections listings of the PhotoGraphic Libraries. Note that this portal is unattributed; however, the Index to image categories leads to a wealth of archival sources.

Once you've found images that support your curriculum, it's also useful to rediscover teaching methodologies and pointers about their use in the classroom. One of the most comprehensive resources discussing finding and utilizing images for research and teaching is Learning to Do Historical Research: Photographic Images. It's a section of the website, Learning to Do Historical Research: A Primer for Environmental Historians and Others, developed by environmental historian William Cronon and his students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

For more information 

Check out other resources on teachinghistory.org; particularly, see Website Reviews, National Resources, and Teaching Materials.