What if, anytime they wanted, students and educators could dip into George Washington's diaries, peruse Civil War photographs, or check out early baseball cards?
In fact, every school librarian, home-schooling parent, or anyone else with access to a modem already can, since the US Library of Congress began putting documents online.
But there's a hitch: Wading through some 500,000 documents can tie up scarce research hours and discourage users. That's why the library - which aims to digitalize millions of American history items in its collection by 2000 - is stepping up efforts to make these vast collections easier to use in the classroom.
"Five years ago, I could access the wealth of the Library of Congress only if I had an excuse, a benefactor, and a plane ticket. Now it's open to anyone who has a computer," says Kathleen Ferenz, a teacher at the Ben Franklin Middle School in Daly City, Calif.
Ms. Ferenz was one of the first group of educators the Library of Congress sponsored to develop model lesson plans that use these new digitalized collections. A second group just completed similar workshops in Washington, and Ferenz helped train them.
At these workshops, teams of teachers and media specialists (a.k.a. librarians) develop lesson plans that draw on this digital collection, road-test and refine them during the school year, then make them available to other teachers. The goal is to develop a national network of teachers using these materials in the classroom.
Loads of lesson plans
About a dozen lesson plans are already posted on the Learning page, accessed through the Library's Web site (www.loc.gov).
"We're trying to build education leaders who will help other teachers get up to speed with very rich, very detailed materials," says Bill Tally, a consultant with the New York-based Center for Children and Technology, a partner in this $60 million project.
It's not easy to make your way through 2,900 oral histories from the Federal Writers' Project (1936-40) or 29,300 photographs of American architecture and interior design or 35 hours of recorded folk music from northern California in the 1930s.
At first, Ferenz and teammate Leni Donlan were overwhelmed by the sheer volume of materials in the American Memory collection.
"Then, I started hearing the stories the collections was telling me ... what people thought, what they did, their heroism," she says.
Her eighth-graders used the American Memory collection to gather and analyze historical information about their hometown. Then they created projects that "show your understanding of others' dreams ... then share your dream for your future."
"We tried to catch them at their heart: How do they define the American dream and to gather evidence to see what the American dream has been," says Ferenz. This fall, classes nationwide using this lesson plan will share their work via online discussions.
A project developed by teaching fellow Peter Milbury requires the class to prepare for a job interview for the position of Indian agent on a Comanche reservation in Texas in 1873. Each student is sent a letter outlining the issues they should be prepared to discuss, including: the history of the relations of the Comanche with Texans, the fears and concerns of people in the state, successful approaches used by other agents, and a strategy to protect both the Comanche and the Texans' lives and property without stirring up controversy.
For this exercise, students glean information from some 2,900 oral histories documented in the Federal Writers' Project. What teachers found out when they tested the idea was that students needed more-structured help to pull out relevant information. "But we also found that such role-playing is engaging and motivating and puts you in touch with the human side of history more immediately," Mr. Talley says.
"It also helps kids understand and practice historical thinking or trying to understand on the basis of partial evidence. They see that major events have been hotly debated, and that arguments are still open. Through primary sources, kids can participate in the debates themselves," he adds.
Smoothing out use in schools
In each case, there were technical difficulties to be overcome for both students and staff. Most of Forenz's students, for example, did not have access to a computer at home to do their assignments, so she had to work out an arrangement with the computer teacher to incorporate using these primary sources in class.
Even then, it can be difficult to get started.
"We didn't get very far. Our frustrations were not being able to sign on the Internet with the address you gave us," wrote middle-schoolers Jenna and Judi in an e-mail message to coach Ferenz.
Also, when Ferenz finds something in the collection that she thinks will interest students, such as Walt Whitman's notebooks, she just copies them for their binder notebooks.
"Most of my students are the children of immigrants and often find the textbooks hard to read. I show them pages from these notebooks and say, 'Here are some artifacts. Now what do you want to know about Walt Whitman?' I build classes around their questions," she adds.
In addition, teaching fellows are urged to keep their projects simple - no high-tech bells and whistles.
"We don't want anything that makes it difficult for teachers with low-tech equipment to use these collections or lesson plans," Ferenz says.
What officials hope is that these collections will make it into the daily life of American history classes.
"Creative publishers will see that what they will have to do is put their textbooks online with imbedded links to these sites. There are wonderful items here that give depth to textbooks, and bring them up to date," says Susan Veccia, project manager for educational services with the National Digital Library.
The Library of Congress's initiative corresponds with a move among many reformers who work with students in poor schools to get more primary source material into the curriculum.
"Just assigning the questions at the end of the chapter of a textbook or worksheets will not do if you want depth of understanding. If you want higher-order thinking - synthesis and analysis - you have to use primary sources," says Eleanor Dougherty, senior associate with the Washington-based Education Trust, a research and advocacy group that focuses on the needs of poor schools. "It's also engaging," she adds. "You can take a single topic and research it from different points of view.... Too many kids are bored with school."
WHAT YOU'LL FIND oN THE INTERNET
The Library of Congress Web site (www.loc.gov) has been up since 1995. The goal is to get 1 percent of the library's 113 million items digitalized by 2000. Early on, officials gave priority to the story of the common man at the turn of the century, especially life histories, music, and maps. When your computer zooms in on these maps, you can see them better than with the naked eye, officials say. The Civil War is also strongly represented in the American Memory collection. Here's what you'll find:
* American Memory: Photographs, sound, and moving pictures. You'll also find the Learning page, including lesson plans and search help for the Library of Congress documents.
* Thomas: The Congressional Record from 1993 to the present.
* Online exhibitions and the Library of Congress catalogs.
* E-mail comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org