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Treasure-trove at the National Archives

The National Archives may bring to mind fragile parchment documents: The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. But beyond housing the papers that laid the foundation of a new nation, the National Archives is a federal agency that holds all official records of the United States government.

If you want to find out about almost anything relating to American history, from territorial exploration to military conflicts to scientific investigation, this is the place to come.

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Records include photographs, cartoons, posters, maps, artifacts, sound recordings, and motion pictures, as well as all kinds of written materials - letters, reports, diaries, journals, budgets, laws, executive orders, and judicial decisions.

Where is the Archives?

The Archives' home base, which includes the Exhibition Hall, is located in the imposing Federalist building that faces Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C. But the National Archives is not just one building; it includes a large, new repository in College Park, Md., 18 regional offices, and 10 presidential libraries. The regional offices reach from Alaska to Georgia and, like the national office and presidential libraries, offer educational activities and programs as well as sources to use in the classroom.

What's showing in the Exhibit Hall?

Current exhibits include "The Charters of Freedom," "American Originals," and "When Nixon Met Elvis."

For those who can't visit, the National Archives' Web site offers samplings from recent as well as ongoing exhibits. You'll find digital versions of America's most famous documents along with biographies of all 55 men who signed the Declaration of Independence. You'll also discover panoramic photographs from World War I, examples of government-funded art projects from the Great Depression, a collection of World War II posters, photographs of Chicago taken by John H. White in the 1970s, and an amazing array of gifts to recent presidents.

What educational resources are available from the National Archives?

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The Digital Classroom, one of the main features on the National Archives' Web site, is designed to help classroom teachers and parents of home-schoolers use primary materials. The Digital Classroom supplies historical context for the sources, explains how they fit into the curriculum, and suggests ways to use them with students of different ages.

Say, for example, you want to research President Franklin Roosevelt's proposal to increase the number of justices on the Supreme Court and the threat this posed to the separation of powers. The key document is a letter written by newspaper publisher Frank Gannett to the US solicitor general. The lesson gives background on the powers traditionally exercised by the Supreme Court, events in the 1930s that led up to the president's proposal, reasons that Roosevelt chose this course of action - including F.D.R'.s political miscalculations - and responses from politicians and the general public.

Suggested teaching strategies cover basic skills - reading and writing - as well as questions to help students identify key facts, think about broad constitutional issues, and look for comparable events in American history. The lesson also offers ideas for further research.

Lessons cover many aspects of the American experience. "Launching the New United States Navy," "Migration North to Alaska," "Glidden's Patent Application for Barbed Wire," and "Jackie Robinson: Beyond the Playing Field" appear along with traditional political subjects.

A recent addition to the Digital Classroom is "The Constitution Community," which focuses on the central place of the Constitution in American life. The program consists of more than two-dozen lessons covering the period from 1754 to the present. Developed in partnership with classroom teachers, each is directly related to at least one constitutional provision. "Eli Whitney's Patent for the Cotton Gin," for example, is linked to Congress's power to pass laws relating to the granting of patents. The "Message Drafted by General Eisenhower in Case the D-Day Invasion Failed" examines Congress's powers to declare war and establish and maintain the armed forces.

What special programs are provided for teachers?

Education specialists at the National Archives offer in-service programs for school districts, workshops at regional and national professional meetings, and a week-long summer institute for K-16 teachers, which introduces participants to archival research and strategies for using primary sources in the classroom.

What educational resources are available through the presidential libraries?

The libraries are great places to learn about 20th-century presidents and events associated with their administrations. They have terrific exhibits and offer carefully crafted educational programs. In addition, both the Hoover and Truman libraries devote big chunks of their Web sites to young audiences. On the "Whistlestop," for example, you can read letters that Harry Truman wrote to his daughter, Margaret, find out what books he read as a child, look at family photographs, and puzzle over political cartoons. With just a click on the keyboard, you can learn almost anything you ever wanted to know about the 33rd president of the United States.

What's available in print?

The National Archives has published two collections of lesson plans as well as packets of primary sources on the Constitution, Bill of Rights, and Oregon Trail.

True history buffs should check out the quarterly magazine Prologue. Based on research done at the Archives, articles tell fascinating tales about Americans from all walks of life. They provide great background for teachers looking for new perspectives and fresh insights, and are good reading for high school students. "Standing in for the President," for example, takes a look at the role of the president's press secretary. "Irving Berlin: This Is the Army" tells the story behind the classic World War II show.

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(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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