Treasure-Trove at the National Archives

By Christine L. Compston, | The Christian Science Monitor, October 19, 1999 | Go to article overview
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Treasure-Trove at the National Archives


Christine L. Compston,, The Christian Science Monitor


The National Archives may bring to mind fragile parchment documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But beyond housing the papers that laid the foundation of a new nation, the National Archives is a federal agency that holds all official records of the United States government.

If you want to find out about almost anything relating to American history, from territorial exploration to military conflicts to scientific investigation, this is the place to come.

Records include photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, sound recordings, and motion pictures, as well as all kinds of written materials - letters, reports, diaries, journals, budgets, laws, executive orders, and judicial decisions.

Where is the Archives?

The Archives' home base, which includes the Exhibition Hall, is located in the imposing Federalist building that faces Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. But the National Archives is not just one building; it includes a large, new repository in College Park, Md., 18 regional offices, and 10 presidential libraries. The regional offices reach from Alaska to Georgia and, like the national office and presidential libraries, offer educational activities and programs as well as sources to use in the classroom.

What's showing in the Exhibit Hall?

Current exhibits include "The Charters of Freedom," "American Originals," and "When Nixon Met Elvis."

For those who can't visit, the National Archives' Web site offers samplings from recent as well as ongoing exhibits. You'll find digital versions of America's most famous documents along with biographies of all 55 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. You'll also discover panoramic photographs from World War I, examples of government-funded art projects from the Great Depression, a collection of World War II posters, photographs of Chicago taken by John H. White in the 1970s, and an amazing array of gifts to recent presidents.

What educational resources are available from the National Archives?

The Digital Classroom, one of the main features on the National Archives' Web site, is designed to help classroom teachers and parents of home-schoolers use primary materials. The Digital Classroom supplies historical context for the sources, explains how they fit into the curriculum, and suggests ways to use them with students of different ages.

Say, for example, you want to research President Franklin Roosevelt's proposal to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court and the threat this posed to the separation of powers. The key document is a letter written by newspaper publisher Frank Gannett to the US solicitor general. The lesson gives background on the powers traditionally exercised by the Supreme Court, events in the 1930s that led up to the president's proposal, reasons that Roosevelt chose this course of action - including F.D.R'.s political miscalculations - and responses from politicians and the general public.

Suggested teaching strategies cover basic skills - reading and writing - as well as questions to help students identify key facts, think about broad constitutional issues, and look for comparable events in American history.

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