By Peggy Thomas
With more than 162 million items in 470 different languages, the Library of Congress is a treasure trove of primary sources for nonfiction writers. Although the three main buildings in D.C. are currently closed to the public due to COVID-19 (which stinks because I can’t use my most prized library card) you can still unlock its riches online at www.LOC.gov.
As its name implies, the LOC is home to all Congressional records. See which bills are being debated on the House floor, contact your representatives and search historic records by date. But that is only one part of their collection.
The LOC is so massive it holds the papers of 23 presidents from Washington to Coolidge, and all the public tweets since 2006. It can be overwhelming. But it’s just as easy to find material there as it is at your local library. Here are a few helpful resources and tips for navigating the site.
Let’s start on the home page. Below the banner is your menu. Library Catalog takes you to a search page with a list of specialized catalogs like Primo Central that searches across journal articles and eBook databases. When you’re ready to dig deeper, you’ll want to use the Finding Aids that describe the physical contents of boxes in off-site storage.
Digital Collections are fun to explore. There are dozens of curated subjects such as Cartoon Drawings, Civil War Maps, LGBTQ & Politics, Tibetan Oral History, and Lewis Carroll Scrapbooks. They’re especially helpful when you’re starting your research because they also contain articles with additional links to explore.
The Researchers tab guides you to a list of research centers within the library like Science and Technology or the Main Reading Room (where I want my ashes scattered when I die). These sites tell you what’s new in that department as well as fun facts and featured podcasts.
The tab labeled MORE… takes you to Services and Programs. I love the American Folklife Center. That’s where you’ll find personal narratives recorded by the Veteran’s Project and Storycorp. At the very bottom of the Services page is another interesting resource—the World Digital Library. It has images and manuscripts from dozens of countries.
At the bottom of the home page is Free to Use and Reuse. This is a collection of seemingly random yet commonly used images that have no copyright restrictions. It’s a go-to if you need a quick photo of Lincoln or a cat. The collection isn’t extensive, but it’s growing.
Speaking of photos, please note that all images in their massive online collection of Photos, Prints, Drawings are not free to use as many people think. An image might be housed at the library but owned by someone else. When you locate a photo, scroll down to Rights Advisory. If it says “No known restrictions on publication” you should be okay, but I always check the rights and access of each item just to be sure.
The search bar at the top of every page allows you to search the entire library or just one format like audio recordings, films or 3D objects. If you want to browse a format like newspapers, for example, choose newspapers and leave the search line blank. With any search you’ll notice related material listed in blue on the left side of the page. Be careful. You can go down a delightful rabbit hole and get caught up in primary sources for days.
Looking for a new project? I suggest subscribing to the library’s blogs for inspiration. There are as many blogs as there are departments and you can choose the ones that interest you. I look forward to their emails every week. I get my dose of trivia with “Today in History,” and keep up to date on their virtual programs, which always feature amazing authors and experts in their fields.
Well, that’s just a small sampling of what you can find at the LOC. I didn’t even mention the National Jukebox, the U.S Copyright Office or the resources for teachers, which I consult for curriculum connections.
The LOC, the largest library in the world, is still growing and adding digital material daily. You can even help by volunteering for By The People, a crowdsourcing campaign to transcribe documents. Then you’ll really feel like a treasure hunter opening a dusty tomb and being the first person to see the gleaming gold inside.
ACTIVITYExplore the Library of Congress as you locate these women’s rights resources.
- In Free to Use and Reuse, locate a photo of a suffragette in prison.
- Search Films to find a conversation on the impact of the women’s movement today.
- Go to the Digital Collections and look for the Carrie Chapman Catt papers and pages from her diary.
- Search Audio Recordings and listen to the recording of Dear Delightful Women.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Peggy Thomas is the author of dozens of nonfiction books for children, and co-author of Anatomy of Nonfiction: Writing True Stories for Children. With a master’s degree in anthropology, Peggy explores a wide range of subjects blending history and science to create award-winning titles like her most recent book Lincoln Clears a Path (Calkins Creek, 2021). Peggy blogs for the Nonfiction Ninjas and is a proud Nonfiction Chick. Visit her website at www.peggythomaswrites.com.
ABOUT THE PRIZE
Peggy is giving away a critique of a nonfiction picture book manuscript or the first 10 pages of a larger project.