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Programming with Library of Congress Digital Collections : History

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 History

History is the study and documentation of the human past.

The period of events before the invention of writing systems is considered prehistory. "History" is an umbrella term comprising past events as well as the memory, discovery, collection, organization, presentation, and interpretation of these events.

The Library of Congress has many great collections that can be used by students and history enthusiasts alike. Although the information here focuses on Anna E. Dickinson Papers, the suggested activities can be modified to use with almost any documentary collection in the Library of Congress Digital Archive.

Anna E. Dickinson Papers

Anna E. Dickinson was somewhat of a teenage phenomenon when she hit the lecture railing against the injustices of slavery. The documents in this collection highlight a life that was extraordinary but at times also difficult and lonely. Spanning the period 1859-1951, collection consists of approximately 10,000 items (20,221 images) - including family correspondence, general correspondence, speeches and writings, a legal file, financial papers, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks, and research notes of Dickinson's biographer, Giraud Chester.

Dickinson had a particularly close relationship with Susan B. Anthony and shared the latter's interest in women's rights and temperance. She also advocated for the rights of African Americans and corresponded with escaped slave and abolitionist orator Frederick Douglass as well as with other notable figures of her time.  Although Dickinson did not retain copies of most of her correspondence, she obtained many of the letters she wrote while on national lecture tours to Mary Dickinson, her mother, and Susan Dickinson, her journalist sister. This correspondence described her travel itineraries, her impressions, and her joys and misgivings.

Information adapted from Library of Congress Anna E. Dickinson Papers- About this Collection.

A newspaper clipping with an illustration of Anna

"Newspaper clipping," (c. 1893-1896) in Anna E. Dickinson Papers Scrapbook.

Collection Highlights

Pictured is a letter to Anna from Frederick Douglass, 1866

My Heart is Full to Overflowing...

Letter from Frederick Douglass to Anna E. Dickinson, dated September 10, 1866.

Anna's Phrenological Chart, 1866

"Phrenological Character of Anna E. Dickinson," (June 21. 1866), created by Nelson Sizer. Phrenology is the study of the shape of the skull. 

A Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Anna dates 1864. Written on stationary from the office of the women's loyal national league.

My Dear Anna...

Letter from Susan B. Anthony to Anna E. Dickinson, dated April 14, 1864.

Some of the most interesting items in the Dickinson Papers are the letters exchanged between Anna and her sister, Susan. In these letters the two would talk about just about everything, but Anna would often give her sister detailed discerptions about the places she was visiting and the people she met.

The main goal of this activity is to connect our time with Anna’s in the way we communicate to loved ones who are not with us – how to we share our experiences with those who are far away. Anna and her sister shared experiences through letters, is that really so difference then how we share experiences today?

In this activity you can choose one or two letters from the Family Correspondence section of the collection and have participants mine the letter for details about daily life in the town Anna was in. Ask them to think about the words Anna is using and what is important to her in these descriptions. Then, have the participants either draw a picture of what Anna is describing, write their own letter detailing the area they live or work, of investigate how the words/descriptions Anna uses related to modern modes of communications – social media posts

Please Note: Almost all the correspondence in this collection is written in cursive and handwritten in varying degrees of legibility. If you are working with participants who cannot read cursive - it may be wise to choose letters that can be transcribed easily by program planner. 

A letter from Anna to her sister Susan dated 1982 and addressed to "My Dear Sister"

"My Dear Sister," Letter from Anna E. Dickinson to her sister Susan Dickinson dated April 18, 1862.

Anna was many things I her life, but she was, first and foremost, an orator. Oration and public debate played a vital role in the Women’s Right Movement and are still vital components to the Democratic process. For this activity, which can be used as a stand-alone program or part of a larger series of programs dedicated to women’s rights, voting, or other Democratic initiatives, you will choose several of Anna’s speeches on women’s rights.  Have participants read them aloud in groups – encouraging their most Ciceronian dramatization – and ask them to pay attention to the rhetoric and imagery Anna uses. Watch some modern speeches (these do not have to be of political orientation but should have to do with women’s rights and/or voting) looking for the same use of rhetoric and imagery. Finally. Have a discussion on the larger topic of speech and oration, using Anna and the modern speeches as examples.

The modify this program to young participants still use Anna’s speeches but with more explanatory instruction about oration – what it is and how it works in the political discourse. Them ask them to craft their own speeches (on any topic they like) and deliver them to the group.

Many of Anna’s speeches on women’s rights and suffrage have been transcribed through the LOC By the People Campaign.

The first page of one of Anna's speeches on temperance and suffrage.

"Temperance and Suffrage," Speech by Anna E. Dickinson from 1868.

Anna was in the news a lot, and many of the newspaper clippings in her collection are clippings from newspapers and broadsides. For this activity, you will choose several of the news clippings from the collection and phrase out the main topics/events happing. Then ask your participants to contextualize these events using LOC’s Chronicling America database.

Participants will search Chronicling American for keywords, dates and location, and even for Anna herself. While searching though the newspapers, they will want to ask themselves:

  • What was happening in America when Anna gave that speech?
  • What other events were happening in that location?
  • Where reviews of Anna’s speeches always favorable?  

These types of questions, and any you choose to add, will help participants contextualize historical activities to see the large picture represented in these newspapers.

Article from the San Antonio daily light October 03, 1888 that contains an article on Anna

"Anna E. Dickinson: Campaign Speaker for the Republicans," newspaper article in The San Antonio Daily Light dated October 3, 1988.

Related Collections

Anna was known to have a warm relationship with Frederick Douglass and corresponded with him frequently. Just like Anna's letters to her sister, the correspondence between Douglass and Anna can be used to contextualize and investigate how participants of the Abolitionist movement talked about their cause. Juxtaposing the abolitionist speeches of Douglass and Anna can also shed light on how different experiences with enslavement (Douglass as an escaped slave and Anna as a white norther woman who never suffered enslavement) alters the way one talks about and reflects on the Abolitionist movement.

The Susan B. Anthony Papers, just like Anna's papers, can be used to investigate the Women's Rights Movement. However, when used together or with other collections regarding the women involved, the investigation can be expended to include understandings of how women where building feminist coalitions and communities. This type of cross collection investigation can also aid in understanding the communities of women that were left out of the mainstream movement (Black women and Indigenous women, for example) and the important role these underground movements played in the broader feminist movement to come. 

Anna made several speeches during Abraham Lincoln’s reelection campaign in the 1864 Presidential Election. Using Anna’s speeches along with the papers in the Lincoln collection can help participants contextualize and critically investigate the issues influencing an election that took place in the middle of the Civil War. Using these two collections, as well as Chronicling America can add insight and nuance when investigating one of the most important, and contentious, Presidential campaign in American history. 

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.