This post was authored by guest contributors Danielle Emerling, Assistant Curator, Congressional and Political Papers Archivist, West Virginia University Libraries, and Jay Wyatt, Director of Programs and Research, Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education.
The archives that document the United States Congress reside in repositories throughout the country. How to bring them together in a meaningful and thematic way is a question congressional archivists and historians often ponder. About four years ago we started planning a project that would do just that – use materials from several archives to explore the numerous pieces of legislation that make up the “Great Society” and discover the Congress that passed them.
The digital exhibit, “The Great Society Congress,” is a collaborative project of the Association of Centers for the Study of Congress (ACSC). The ACSC is an association of organizations that promotes the study of the United States Congress. Many ACSC member organizations maintain archival collections of current and former members of the House of Representatives and the Senate. The online exhibit features more than 400 items from 18 member institutions. While our energy initially was focused on creating the exhibit, the exhibit has turned into a great vehicle for new partnerships and outreach.
How We Did the Project
Telling the story of Congress is difficult. It’s a large, complex institution with more than 500 members who bring different interests, points of view, and ways of working to a body that needs to make policy for the entire country. Our approach was to focus on the key legislation, the leadership and procedures that shaped this particular Congress, and some of the larger events unfolding at the time, such as the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights movement.
With so many different components, we chose to develop the exhibit over the course of two years, releasing pieces of it to coincide with different legislative anniversaries. This made the project more manageable for our all-volunteer exhibit task force.
We were unsure at first how many ACSC member institutions would contribute to the project because participation largely depended on what members were able to find in their collections. We were pleasantly surprised by the response, though. By the time we completed the site build, we had incorporated over 400 primary source documents from almost 20 different ACSC member organizations.
We also received a wider variety of materials focusing on a broader array of topics than we initially anticipated, and so both the size and scope of the exhibit expanded as the project proceeded. For example, the W.R. Poage Legislative Library at Baylor University and the Robert J. Dole Institute of Politics at the University of Kansas submitted materials documenting a Food for Peace delegation trip to India led by then-Congressman Dole and Congressman W.R. “Bob” Poage. The highlight of this submission was the discovery that silent film footage of the trip held at the Poage Legislative Library matched up with audio held at the Dole Institute, and archivists Debbie Davendonis (Poage) and Sarah D’Antonio Gard (Dole) were able to reconstruct this rare source. The submission encouraged us to consider the additional work that Congress does, and as a result we developed “The Political Environment” section of the exhibit, which eventually grew to include features on civil rights and the war in Vietnam.
We brought all of these materials together in an Omeka exhibit, hosted by the University of Delaware Library. With the assistance of the Web Services and Digital Humanities Librarian, we were able to create a special template for the site that blends contemporary design and easy navigability.
NARA Lesson Plan
After creating the site’s content, we received some anecdotal evidence that college faculty were using the site for instruction, but we hoped that educators teaching at various levels would use the site in the classroom. We also knew educators have a tremendous workload and would likely want something ready-made and flexible to use.
So, we partnered with the Center for Legislative Archives (CLA) at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) to create a lesson plan. The CLA is the part of NARA that preserves and makes available the official records of Congress, and as a longtime ACSC member, it had already contributed a great deal of expertise and documents to the exhibit. The CLA has extensive experience developing educational resources, including lesson plans, e-books, and mobile apps, for K-12 educators. Charles Flanagan, Outreach Supervisor at the CLA, guided us through the lesson plan creation and showed us how to structure a lesson so students build on their knowledge from one day to the next.
The resulting lesson plan, “Congress, the Great Society in the 1960s, and today,” asks students in grades 9-12 to summarize President Lyndon Johnson’s vision for a “Great Society,” place the vision in historical context, and detail the ways in which Congress responded.
Our partnership with the CLA has been invaluable. Charlie and the CLA’s educational specialists use the “Great Society” lesson plan in many of the outreach activities they conduct with teachers across the country each year, and that has helped make people more aware of the exhibit and encouraged greater interaction with the materials. It has, in many ways, helped keep the exhibit relevant, as we’ve moved on from the 50th anniversary of the Great Society.
National History Day Article
In addition to instruction, we wanted to entice students to use the site for their research. One of the members of the exhibit team had worked with National History Day (NHD) in the past, and we contacted NHD about writing an article for the 2018 theme book. Each year, the NHD theme book consists of articles relating to the year’s theme, and it is unveiled at the national competition. They print approximately 12,000-15,000 copies, but most people access it online. The theme book usually receives approximately 300,000 page views.
Our article, “Congress Constructs the Great Society Through Conflict and Compromise,” provides an overview of the exhibit. By pulling out specific documents, photographs, and audio files available in the exhibit, we sought to highlight the numerous ways students could connect Congress’ role in passing legislation with the theme of “Conflict and Compromise.” Following the theme book’s publication in fall 2017, we saw a significant increase in traffic to the exhibit website. Approximately 7,000 new users have tallied near 18,000 page views on the exhibit over the past eight months. This represents more than a quarter of the 26,000 users who have visited the exhibit since its launch in April 2015. Like the lesson plan, the outreach that we’ve done to promote the exhibit via the NHD theme book has paid major dividends.
Lessons Learned and the Future of the Exhibit
Through collaboration among member institutions to build the site and partnerships to develop instruction and student research resources, “The Great Society Congress” digital exhibit successfully highlighted congressional archives for new audiences. If we did the exhibit over again, we would consider applying for a grant, particularly so we could help member institutions with costs associated with researching topics, digitizing materials, and creating metadata. Although we will not be adding content to the exhibit, we’ll continue to look for outreach opportunities (like this blog!) to help get more people interested in the exhibit. We believe it will continue to be relevant for instructors teaching the history of the 1960s at various levels and a fantastic resource for anyone interested in learning more about the Great Society.