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Programming with Library of Congress Digital Collections : Arts

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 in the Arts

There are many different kinds of primary sources that showcase the arts including sound recordings, film, and even architectural drawings. 

The Library of Congress has many great arts collections that can be used in library programs, classes, and for library displays. Some of the Library's performing arts collections include: the Aaron Copland Collection, the Alan Lomax Collection, and An American Ballroom Companion: Dance Instruction Manuals c.1490-1920.

The Library also has a large collection of databases related to the arts that include sound and video recordings such as the American Silent Feature Film Database and the Tap Dance in America database. Visit the Library of Congress' Performing Arts Databases website for a complete listing.

Sheet music can also be a primary source, and the Library of Congress has a vast collection of annotated sheet music. The information and activities on this tab of the guide focus on the Library's Sheet Music of the Musical Theater Collection.

SEARCH TIP: The Sheet Music of Musical Theater Collection is massive. You can search for specific topics or keywords in a song by going to the Collection and then making sure "In this Collection" is selected from the pulldown menu at the top of the screen so that your keyword search will provide results from The Sheet Music of the Musical Theater.     

Sheet Music of the Musical Theater

Sheet Music of the Musical Theater includes over 16,000 pieces of primary source sheet music from between 1880 and 1922. The sheet music in this collection is from musicals, revues, and operettas. During this time period, the illustrations and designs on the sheet music were often works of art.  The lyrics can also be entertaining.  

Promotional poster for Eyes of Blue with a close up photograph of Alice Delysia wearing a headband. She is looking straight out, and the song title "Eyes of Blue" is above her photo.

Eyes of Blue, (1921) by Dailey Paskman, Frank Capie, and Will Weissberg, [notated music].

Collection Highlights

Red Bi-plane is against blue background.  Title reads

The Air King Sheet Music

I'd Like To Go Up In An Airship(1904) by Raymond Hubbell and Harry B. Smith, [notated music].

Yellowed sheet music is titled

Games of Childhood Days

Games of Childhood Days(1908) by Will J. Harris and Harry I. Robinson, [notated music].

Sheet music cover with the title

The Office Boy

Because He Told Me So(1903) by Ludwig Engländer and Harry B. Smith, [notated music].

Black and white cover of sheet music has the title

What Is the Harm in a Bit of a Walk

What is the Harm in a Bit of a Walk(1919) by Norman McNeil and Elmer Clifton, [notated music].

Programming Ideas

Today, many conductors and performers use an electronic device to display their sheet music for a rehearsal or performance. Prior to this, physical copies of sheet music were required, and, before recordings of songs were made, sheet music was one of the only ways that people could learn a particular song. 

The sheet music often had beautiful, elaborate covers that, today, provide a glimpse into the history and culture of the time period.

Browse through the Sheet Music of the Musical Theater Collection, paying close attention to the covers of the sheet music. Then, design a sheet music cover. (You can do this without having any background in music or theater.)

How would you have designed the cover for a song from the collection?

Or, design a piece of sheet music for your favorite song (classic or contemporary). Think about what the song is about and what time period it is from. What image would best represent that?   

Design a piece of sheet music for an event or activity that you enjoy. For example, here is a 1918 piece of sheet music for "The Circus is Coming to Town" by Irving Berlin. What do you think of when you hear the title of the song? For what event or activity would you want to write a song? What would you put on the cover of your sheet music?

Sheet music (mostly in black and white with some tinges of green) shows woman in flowy dress carrying a green platter on her head. A garland is draped above her.  The title "The Circus is Coming to Town" is above her.  

image: The Circus is Coming to Town, (1918) by Irving Berlin, [notated music].

Challenge: Write your own song, and design the sheet music for it!

Most of the sheet music in the LOC's Sheet Music of the Musical Theater Collection includes the complete songs with a cover page as well as interior pages with the music and lyrics. 

Browse through the collection or do a keyword search for a topic that interests you. Find a cover of sheet music that intrigues you. Using only the cover and without looking at the lyrics on the interior pages, write the lyrics for that piece of sheet music. After you have written your lyrics, go back and read the lyrics from the original sheet music.  Are you the next Stephen Sondheim?! Or Jeanine Tesori?!  

Example: Using the sheet music for "A Poor Little Girl Like Me" from Mr. Hamlet of Broadway, you might write: 

"Oh, there's nothing to see!
What's to be done?
What have I become?
A Poor Little Girl Like Me."

Have patrons recite their lyrics for each other.

Sheet music with yellow background shows man in Shakespearean outfit holding a skull.

image: "A Poor Little Girl Like Me,(1908) by Benjamin M. Jerome and Edward Maddern, [score] from Mr. Hamlet of Broadway.

Host a primary source concert at the library! 

Choose some of the sheet music from the Sheet Music of the Musical Theater Collection, and invite patron musicians to play. You can find sheet music that is all about a particular topic or theme.

Libraries could partner with local college and university music programs or with local music schools to take part in the concert.

Song lyrics are poetry. As part of the primary source concert, libraries could also invite a local band or songwriter to lead a songwriting workshop where patrons can write their own music.

Sheet music cover with the title "Butterfly Album" in red font and "For Concert Parties" in blue font. Below is a photograph of a group of people who appear to be dressed as clowns surrounding a woman in a costume leotard in the center.  


image: "Opening Chorus," (1919) by Ernest Longstaffe from Butterfly Follies, [notated music].

Find a piece of sheet music from the Library's Sheet Music of the Musical Theater Collection. Then, using Chronicling America, search for the title of the show, revue, or operetta that featured that song. 

Can you find an announcement about the performance?  A review?  What kind of publicity did the performance have? If you found a review, what did the critics think? Based on the song lyrics, what do you think?

Example: This is a piece of sheet music for "Walking the Dog" from The Passing Show of 1916.

Sheet music of "Walking the Dog" shows two women in short, puffy dresses standing on a stage over the heads of balding men.   

Walking the Dog, (1916) by Otto Motzan and Harold Atteridge from The Passing Show of 1916, [notated music].

The December 3, 1916 edition of The Washington Herald has a headline that "Woman Dominates Programs at Leading Local Theaters: 'Passing Show of 1916' and 'Cousin Lucy' Force Male Entertainers from Spotlight." 

  Black and white newspaper with "The Washington Herald" title at the top shows women in dresses.  Paper is dated December 3, 1916.

The Washington Herald, December 03, 1916. 

The Washington Herald talks about The Passing Show of 1916 and has a feature story on 17-year-old Pearl Eaton who was in the cast of The Passing Show of 1916 at the Belasco Theater. 


Related Collections

If you are looking for older sheet music, the Library has a digital collection of 10th-16th Century Liturgical Chants. The collection includes primary source sheet music that includes single leaves as well as entire books of music. These primary sources can be used to show the history of written music in the western world from diverse regions throughout Europe.

Piece of sheet music shows lines notated in red, and the notes are square-shaped blocks.  The words are in Latin.  A large letter O starts one line in the middle of the page. 

image: [O Crux Admi] Rabilis Evacuatio Vulneris et Restitutio Sanitatis, (c.1501-1600?), [Sacred Music].

Patrons can compare and contrast the sheet music from this collection with the Sheet Music of the Musical Theater collection.  Patrons can think about:

  • How has music notation changed? 
  • What has stayed the same?
  • Could you play or sing from this sheet music?
  • In what language are the words written?

Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies features 341 motion pictures and 81 recordings as well as photographs and articles about inventor Thomas Alva Edison and his involvement with motion pictures and sound recordings.  


Host a film night at the library! You can incorporate primary sources from motion picture history. Prior to showing a current or recent film, show some of these first films. It will get patrons thinking about how much film has changed over time.

"There is color!  There is sound!  They are long!"      

You could also create an entire program focusing on Magic Lanterns/Magic Lantern Slides* and then have your patrons make their own lantern slides (by cutting up a sheet protector). You can host a "nickelodeon" night and project patron lantern slides, using a flashlight as the patron tells the story of what is happening. 

2 strips of children's drawings.  On the top strip, several drawings show a plant blossoming. The bottom strip has several pictures showing a little girl opening a door, selecting a toy from a shelf, and then exiting.

image: Hand drawn lantern slides by a 4th grade student (top) and a 2nd grade student (bottom) from a library class about magic lanterns and early films as storytelling.

Then show some of these early films from the LOC collection to show how storytelling has changed over time. 

*Magic lanterns were a type of projector that was developed in the 17th century and that became popular in the 19th century for storytelling. Magic lanterns used painted glass slides that had multiple images on each slide. As the slide was moved through the projector, the sequential pictures told a story.

The idea for a library program or class featuring magic lantern slides came from a post on the Library of Congress' TPS Teachers' Network. To view the link, you will have to register for the TPS Network, but it is free...and there are lots of great programming ideas on the Network. The TPS Network is a social media network for teachers, librarians, and anyone who is interested in history and primary sources. It is a great resource to find primary sources and lesson plans/programming ideas.

Book Pairings:

Barretta, Gene. Starring Steven Spielberg: The Making of a Young Filmmaker. 2022. Little, Brown, and Company. 

Picture book biography of filmmaker Steven Spielberg describes incidents from his childhood and life that inspired him to become a filmmaker and to make particular films. (Grades 2-6)

Book cover displays title "Starring Steven Spielberg: The Making of a Young Filmmaker."  A young boy is holding a video camera and smiling.  In the background, an airplane is flying, there is a dessert, and there are two kids talking.   

Rockliff, Mara. Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker. 2018. Chronicle Books, LLC. 

A picture book biography of filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché who made some of the first moving pictures and was one of the first to use films to tell stories. She also experimented with new camera angles and techniques. (Some of her early films are on Youtube and can be paired with the book for programming.)  (Grades K-5).

Book cover shows spotlights shining down on the title, "Lights! Camera! Alice!: The Thrilling True Adventures of the First Woman Filmmaker."  A woman in a long skirt, high heels, and a hat is sitting in the foreground.

The Swann Collection of Caricature and Cartoon contains over 2,000 drawings, caricatures, and comic strips from 1890 to 1970. Of course, these can all be considered art, but they are also another form of storytelling and can provide information about historic events and public sentiments at a particular time in history.  

For a library program, select some of the comic strips and display them on different tables or hung in different areas around the library. Have patrons go on a "gallery walk" to observe the primary sources. Patrons can think about:

  • How have comic strips changed?
  • Do you see some of the same characters?
  • What can you learn about the time period or culture from the comic strip?  

            Four panel comic shows a woman in a dress talking to a man who wears a suit jacket and checkered pants.  The wife tells him that friends want him to do things with them, but he refuses.  In the end, she says "I want you to solemnly promise never again to bet on a horse that loses."

"Mr. Jones is at the door, he wants you to go to the ballgame with him," Knott Wright, c. 1900-1920, by A.C. Hutchison.

Patrons can then create their own comic strip about whatever topic they choose. 

If you can, invite a comic book creator to lead a workshop for patrons. 

As sequential art, comic strips are part of the history of modern-day graphic novels and manga, so libraries can use this as part of a Comic Con or to showcase graphic novel/manga titles.

Note: Several of the primary source comic strips in the Swann Collection are only fully accessible at the Library of Congress.   

Rights and Access: The Library of Congress does not own the rights or copyright to the material in the Swann Collection and cannot grant or deny permission to publish or distribute the materials. It is up to the user to assess copyright or other use restrictions and obtain permission for use, as necessary.

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.