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Programming with Library of Congress Digital Collections : STEM

This guide is designed to help all types of libraries explore primary sources available from the Library of Congress online collection, and to connect with their communities through programming and educational opportunities.

Primary Sources for STEM

The Library of Congress has primary sources about STEM topics that can be used in library programming, classes, and displays.

While primary sources are often associated with history and social studies, the Library of Congress houses several collections of primary sources that can be used to promote and explore Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). STEM primary sources can help patrons answer questions, and they can provide context for the understanding of themes and concepts in these subject areas. Many of the STEM collections contain information and designs about inventors and their inventions. These not only show how objects came to be and how they work work, but they can also act as inspiration for budding creators.

Tissandier Collection

The Tissandier Collection includes primary sources about early aeronautics from 1773-1910. The Collection includes 975 items, over 400 of which are digitized. The Collection includes diagrams, portraits of famous balloonists, ticket stubs and posters from hot air balloon events, and drawings/illustrations of hot air balloon flights.

Black and white etching shows four stages of André Garnerin's parachute: apparatus for inflating a balloon with hydrogen, a balloon in flight, parachute attached to ascending balloon, and parachute deployed in descent.

image: Technical illustration shows four stages of André Garnerin's parachute: apparatus for inflating a balloon with hydrogen, a balloon in flight, parachute attached to ascending balloon, and parachute deployed in descent, (c. 1860-1880), etching.

Collection Highlights

Yellowed black and white poster lists balloon flights from Paris between 1870 and 1871.  Images of balloons surround the list which is enclosed in a box.  The text is in French.

Liste de ballons sortis de Paris pendant le siège 1870-1871

image: Liste de Ballons Sortis de Paris pendant Le Siège 1870-1871, (1874) by E. Pichot, imprimeur, lithograph. Broadside shows balloon events during the Siege of Paris, 1870-71. 

Poster with green background shows hot air balloon hovering over a city.  At the top of the poster, there are large letters that announce

Panorama de Paris. Vu de la nacelle du grand ballon captif à vapeur de la cour des Tuileries

image: Panorama de Paris. Vu de la Nacelle du Grand Ballon Captif à Vapeur de la Cour des Tuileries, (1878) by Lith. L. Michel & cie. French poster shows the basket of Henri Giffard's captive balloon and a bird's-eye view of Paris to advertise balloon ascensions at the 1878 world's fair.


Cover of

Fearful balloon adventure-- saved by a Grimsby fishing smack

image: Police News: Fearful Balloon Adventure, (1874).  Front page of British illustrated newspaper shows two stories including a man and woman (possibly balloonist Jules Duruof and his wife) clinging to a balloon basket in a stormy sea with a rescue boat approaching. 

Black and white ink drawing shows different scenes including preparation for a balloon ascension, view from the balloon, and landing the balloon.

Sixteen vignettes from the lives of French balloonists, Albert and Gaston Tissandier] / Adrien Marie à Gaston Tissandier souvenir de notre ascension du 3 aôut 1887

image: Sixteen Vignettes from the Lives of French Balloonists, Albert and Gaston Tissandier, (1887) by Adrien-Emmanuel Marie.  Drawing shows preparation for a balloon ascension, view from the balloon, landing at Chauvigny and deflation, and discussion of the event at the dinner table at the Chateau de l'Odière.

A drawing in ink and water color shows a hot air balloon flying against a sunset sky.  There is a band of color on the horizon where the balloon is, but there are dark bands above and below.  Water appears to be below.

The balloon Zénith at sunrise or sunset, with five passengers during a long distance flight from Paris to Arcachon in March, 1875

image: The Balloon Zénith at Sunrise or Sunset with Five Passengers during a Long Distance Flight from Paris to Arcachon in March, 1875, (c.1875-1880), wash drawing possibly by Albert Tissandier.

Programming Ideas


Design your own flying machine!  From the Tissandier collection, select several primary source images of flying machines. Examine the primary source images with patrons. Think about:

  • What elements do you want to include in your flying machine? 
  • What shape would it be?
  • How would it fly/what would power it?
  • How many operators would it require?
  • How many passengers could it hold? What would the passengers need to be comfortable in flight?

Drawing of design of oblong balloon with basket below it.  A person is in the basket.  Two propellers are below the balloon.  Two smaller models of the balloon are below the larger one to show the model from different views.

image: Concours sur le meilleur moyen d'élever un ballon sans perte de gaz de lest / Louis Panafieu, membre de la Société aèrostatique, (c.1830-1860) by Louis Panafieu, hand-colored design drawing.


Think about what would your flying machine need to fly? What kind of materials would you use?

Reuse "found" materials to build your flying machine based on your design. As you are building, continue to reflect on your design, and make changes to the design, as needed.  

Could it fly? 

Take it for a test flight!

Black and white drawing shows six hot air balloons side-by-side holding up a basket with 3 people in it.  Each balloon has something under it to propel it.  Below the basket platform, two lines extend diagonally from each side and meet at a circle that is below the platform

image: Design drawing for a navigational system for an airship employing six balloons and parachutes, a deck, superstructure, and basket below, (c.1820-1880), design drawing.


*As an alternative activity, libraries can host an Egg Drop Challenge through which patrons design a landing craft that will protect a raw egg from cracking when it is dropped from a height. (This is fun and educational for all ages!) For more information about the Egg Drop Challenge and to learn how to host your own program around it, visit Chicago's Museum of Science + Industry.

Create a Tribute in the Form of a Concrete Poem:

The Tissandier Collection includes a primary source tribute handwritten in the shape of a balloon. The text pays tribute to Henri Giffard's balloon that was exhibited during the Paris World Exposition in 1878. 

This primary source tribute is similar to a concrete poem. A concrete poem is written in the shape of the subject of the poem. (For example, a poem about laundry might be written in the shape of a washing machine or a poem about a gecko might be written in the shape of a lizard).

Use library resources to find and learn about a famous inventor. Then, write a concrete poem honoring that inventor. 

For example, if you learned about inventor Thomas Edison, you could then write a concrete poem in the shape of a light bulb.

Host an "Inventor Poetry Slam" during which patrons share their concrete poems.

A floral boarder surrounds a drawing of a hot air balloon.  Inside the balloon portion are handwritten words in French.

image: Tribute to French Ballonist Henri Giffard in the Form of a Handwritten French Text Shaped as a Balloon, inside a Printed Floral Border, (1878) by Mr. Wrabelly of Hungary, town of Pressbourg (Bratislava), on the occasion of seeing the giant Giffard balloon exhibited in the Tuileries gardens during his visit to the World Exposition held in Paris in 1878.

Write a Tribute in the Form of a Letter:

Here is a primary source piece of stationery from 1879 that incorporates a hot air balloon into its design. Design a piece of stationery that incorporates a depiction of a famous invention. 

Using your stationery, write a letter to the inventor thanking them for their invention and describing how it is used today or its importance in history.

Piece of stationery depicts large stalk of wheat along the left hand margin that arches over the top of the paper.  Below the arch of wheat, there is a hot air balloon above a cloud.  There is handwritten writing underneath.

image: Stationery illustrated with a stalk of wheat wrapped in a banner marked "Quo non ascendamus 1879" and a balloon flying above clouds and birds, (1879), lithograph letterhead.

Fulton, Kristin. Flight for Freedom: The Wetzel Family's Daring Escape from East Germany. 2020. Chronicle Books.

Tells the true story of Peter Wetzel and his family's escape from East Berlin to West Berlin via hot air balloon in 1979. (K-Grade 4)

Book cover shows a patched together hot air balloon that is flying against a dark blue, cloudy sky.  There are search lights below.  The moon is shining above them.

Henry, Jason. Up and Away!: How Two Brothers Invented the Hot Air Balloon. 2018. Sterling Children's Books.

Tells the true story of Joseph Montgolfier and his invention of the hot-air balloon in France in 1782. (K-Grade 4)

The book title "Up and Away" is written in yellow letters against the blue background of a hot air balloon.  Animals are in the basket of the balloon and are flying over a town.

In addition to designs and drawings, the Tissandier Collection also includes portraits of people who were famous in the field of early aeronautics. Choose one of these primary sources, and learn more about the historical figure. Most of the documents in the Tissandier Collection are in French or about events that occurred in France, but use Chronicling America to find references to them and their inventions.

Here is a portrait of Gaston and Albert Tissandier. Both were balloonists, and the Library of Congress collection is named after them.

Drawn busts of two gentleman.  They are both in profile and both have beards.  They are surrounded by clouds and hot air ballloons.  

image: Head-and-shoulders Portrait of French Balloonists Albert Tissandier (left) and Gaston Tissandier (right) inside an Oval with Vignettes above of Balloons "Zenith" and "Jean Bart" and an Airship below, (1880-1900), etching.

As another example, one of the early pioneers in aeronautics was Elisa Garnerin. Who was she?  How did she get involved in aeronautics?

Small portrait of woman in profile.  Her hair is pulled back on her head with one curl along the side of her face.  She appears to be well dressed.

image: Elisa Garnerin, Aeronaute, (1854), etching.

Here is a portrait of Francesco Arban di Lione.  He was also a famous French balloonist who is thought to have disappeared over the Mediterranean Sea in 1849.

In 1853, some newspapers reported that he had survived.  Can you research to help solve the mystery?!  

(His name can also be spelled Francisque Arban.)

Drawing of man in the basket of a hot air balloon.  Lines of rope are emanating from the basket.  He is well dressed and is holding his hat by his head.  He is holding a sheet of paper, and another sheet is dropping from the basket.  Below his picture "Francesco Arban di Lione" is written in cursive.

image: Francesco Arban di Lione, (c.1840-1850), lithograph.

Related Collections

The Wilbur and Orville Wright Collection includes primary sources documenting the lives of the Wright Brothers. The collection includes diaries and notebooks, letters, drawings, other documents, and photographic negatives dating from 1900 to 1940.

Patent application page dated 1906 shows aerial drawing of Wright Brothers plane.  It is titled O. and W. Wright Flying Machine.

image: Patents--By Wright Brothers--USA--filed 23 March 1903, patented 22 May 1906, (1903) from the Wilbur Wright and Orville Wright papers, 1809-1979.

Black and white photograph shows plane several feet off the ground.  A person is standing in the background watching.

image: First flight, 120 feet in 12 seconds, 10:35 a.m.; Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, (1903) by Wilbur Wright, Orville Wright, and John T. Daniels.  (Photograph shows the first powered, controlled, sustained flight. Orville Wright at the controls of the machine, lying prone on the lower wing with hips in the cradle which operated the wing-warping mechanism. Wilbur Wright running alongside to balance the machine, has just released his hold on the forward upright of the right wing. The starting rail, the wing-rest, a coil box, and other items needed for flight preparation are visible behind the machine. [Orville Wright preset the camera and had John T. Daniels squeeze the rubber bulb, tripping the shutter.])

Postcard shows man with ballooned arm muscles holding onto a string that has a plane attached to it.  A handwritten message to Orville Wright from Wilbur Wright is at the bottom.

image: Wilbur Wright Correspondence, (September 1908), image 43 of Family Papers.


How do the designs for the flying machines in the Tissandier Collection differ from those in the Wright Collection? How are they similar?

Think about how amazing these early aeronautics would have been for someone who had never seen a person fly in a balloon or an airplane before.... 

Before these inventions, that was something that only birds could do! 

The Library of Congress hosts Everyday Mysteries: Fun Science Facts, a collection which answers some of "life's most interesting questions" through the use of primary sources, introducing users to the Library's vast collections of science and technology primary sources. All of the Everyday Mysteries questions were asked by researchers and answered by the Library's Science Reference Services. 

Did you ever wonder if it is true that no two snowflakes are alike? 

Or, why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk?

Librarians, patrons, and students can submit their own questions through the LOC's online form.

Screenshot of Library of Congress Everyday Mysteries website. The Library of Congress logo is at the top. Below is a banner with a picture of a camel and the words "Everyday Mysteries" on it. Below this, is the typed question "Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk" and a photograph of a pigeon in a nest.

image: "Why do pigeons bob their heads when they walk," Screenshot of Library of Congress' Everyday Mysteries.

The Library of Congress' Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers Collection is massive and includes over 145,000 items of general correspondence, scientific notebooks, blueprints, articles, speeches, and miscellaneous writings including poems written by and for Bell. 

Sometimes looking at primary sources can be like looking for "6 degrees of separation." For example, did you know that Helen Keller and Alexander Graham Bell were friends? The collection includes their correspondence as well as the poem "Autumn" that was written by Helen Keller when she was only 13 years old. It is dedicated, in her own handwriting "For Dr. Bell, with dearest love from the author."  

Typed poem entitled "Autumn" includes 5 stanzas.  At the top in handwriting it says "To Dr. Bell with dearest Love from the author," and, at the bottom, in handwriting it says, "Hulton, Penn. Oct. 27, 1893" and is signed "Helen Keller"  

image: "Autumn" poem, (1893) by Helen Keller.

Similar to browsing the shelves of a physical library, looking through primary sources can lead the patron, student, or researcher down various, delightful, serendipitous rabbit holes.

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content and Fair Use

Statement on Potentially Harmful Content
Some of the materials presented in this guide may reflect outdated, biased, offensive, and possibly violent views and opinions. In addition, some of the materials may relate to violent or graphic events and are preserved by the Library of Congress and presented here for their historical significance. 

Fair Use

Digitized primary sources in the Library's collection each include a "Rights and Access" or "Rights Advisory" statement within the catalog information.  These can help users determine whether the item is in the public domain or whether there are copyright restrictions.  For more information about the Library of Congress' policy on Copyrights and Primary Sources visit the website.