Learning from Historical Documents: A Federal Genealogical Resources Workshop for Middle Schoolers

Much of what makes up family history is first account information from family members. However, the federal government produces a plethora of genealogical documents that can be accessed on a number of government sources to help with researching family history. The tricky part can be finding government sources that are accessible at a middle school level. For this assignment, a workshop will be provided to teach middle school students how to find and utilize government resources while researching their family history for a school project.

The workshop will use former Illinois Governor Richard James Oglesby as a search example as the students research federal genealogical resources including census records, historical images, and military records. Handouts and activity sheets will be included for the students to complete as part of their training.

Lesson Plan: Learning From Historical Documents

Objective/ Outcome

  • To assist middle school students in using federal genealogical resources to research their family history for their school project.


  • Ability to successfully find and use federal genealogical resources.
    • Ability to Identify Primary and Secondary Sources and Analyze Them.
    • Ability to utilize features of each federal resource to return results.

Target Audience

The target audience for this workshop is middle school students completing a family history project at their school. The students have started a unit on immigration, and their teacher has included a family history section so students can learn how families come from various areas of the world. These students have diverse backgrounds, and the amount of information each has on family varies greatly.

Material needed

The material needed for this workshop include a computer lab with approximately twenty-five computers. A projector and SMART board will be set up to show a variety of websites, photographs, and handout information. The handout will explain what genealogy is and how the government publishes documents to help people research their family history (see appendix A). A worksheet will also be provided for students to work together in pairs and learn how to utilize different government resources (see appendix B).

List of resources being used:



The introduction to this workshop will be scripted as follows: “Who can tell me what genealogy is? Where would you search for your family history?” (Class discussion.)

Skill 1: Ability to Identify Primary and Secondary Sources and Analyze Them
  1. Lecture—Introduction to Primary and Secondary Sources and How to Analyze Them
  1. Lecture—Introduction to Primary and Secondary Sources and How to Analyze Them. Instructor will provide an overview of genealogical research. Specific areas covered:
    • What is genealogy?
    • What are primary and secondary sources?
    • How to analyze primary sources

“As you can see on the screen (slide 1), there are a number of resources available through the government that provide genealogy documents, images, maps, statistics, and much more! Today we are going to learn about these resources and how to use them when searching for family history.

“The United States has been keeping records for many years. According to the United States Census Bureau, Congress assigned marshals of the U.S. judicial districts to begin compiling census records in 1790. Ever since then, the public has been able to access these records and research history!

“I want to show you a quick video from the US National Archives which shows little known items that they hold in their vaults.1 This will give you an idea of just how much information is kept and preserved throughout the years that people can learn about!

“You will also be completing a worksheet during this lesson so you can learn how to navigate through government resources. You will complete the worksheet in pairs, so please choose a partner and we will get started with the lesson.”

“This handout is a guide for you to learn about and use a variety of government resources when conducting your research for your assignment. Please become familiar with the resources listed on the handout.

“When searching for resources, you will need to make sure you are looking for primary and secondary sources. Can anyone tell me what primary sources are? Secondary sources? (Class discussion.)

“Now that we’ve had a chance to discuss the various types of sources, I want to show you how to analyze them to confirm they are proper sources you can use for your assignment. You’ll want to follow these steps when analyzing primary and secondary sources (slide 2). (Open class discussion on steps of analyzing primary sources.)

“Great job everyone. Now that we know what primary sources are and how to analyze them, let’s get started on the various types of government genealogical resources.”

Skill 2: Ability to Utilize Features of Each Federal Resource to Return Results
  1. Lecture—Introduction to Federal Resources
  2. Demonstration—How to use each resource
  3. Class activity—Practice using each resource
  4. Wrap up—Using resources for homework assignment
  1. Lecture—Introduction to Federal Resources. Instructor will provide an introduction to federal resources used for genealogy.

“As I explained earlier, the handout provides a number of federal resources you can use to research genealogy. Let’s learn about each resource and what it covers.”

Lecture 1: “The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress is a biographical directory of the United States Congress. It covers years 1774 to present and allows the user to search by name, position within Congress, state, party, and year. Why would you want to use this resource for your family history assignment?” (Class discussion.)

Lecture 2: “Next, let’s look at The Library of Congress American Memory. This resource provides historical written and spoken words, recordings, images, prints, maps, and much more. It is a great resource to find various types of resources and is fun to browse through! You can use this resource to find various documents, images, and more of your ancestors and the areas they lived in, what was happening during that time and how it might have made an impact on your family.”

Lecture 3: “Familysearch.org provides a large collection of genealogical and historical records for those looking to explore their family history. This resource is helpful to determine where people’s families come from and who they are based off these accessible records.”

Lecture 4: “ProQuest Congressional provides legislative histories, bills, and reports, members of Congress, committee hearings, and much more to search through. You can use this resource to find topics brought to Congress that your ancestors might have been involved with.”

  1. Demonstration—how to use each resource. Instructor will demonstrate each resource while again explaining how this resource will be helpful in researching genealogy. All demonstrations will be projected on SMART board so students can follow along on their individual computers.

“To demonstrate how to use each resource, we will use former Illinois Governor Richard J. Oglesby. We will start with a simple Google search so you can learn how to compare these searches to those using government resources. Let’s begin by typing ‘Richard J. Oglesby’ into Google search. As you can see at the top, there are approximately 1,740,000 results. You will not have time to analyze every source listed on the results page to determine if the source is useful for your assignment. What ways can you determine which results will be useful from a search like this?” (Class discussion.)

“A few of you mentioned the National Governors Association result for Richard J. Oglesby because I had mentioned earlier that he was a former Illinois Governor.2 This is a good website to look at to get some basic information.

“We will be using the information from this page to help our searches in some of the government resources.

“Let’s remember his birth and death dates, where he was born, his party, the national office he served, and his military service.” (Write to the side on white board.)

Demonstration 1 (paired with Lecture 1): “Let’s start a search using the first listed resource on your handout: bioguide.congress.gov.3

“From what we learned through the National Governors Association page, we will input his first and last name in the required fields. Who can tell me what we should input for the ‘Position’ field? And how about the ‘Party’ field?

“With those fields entered, let’s search and see what results are returned to us.

“As you can see, we were able to locate Richard Oglesby by the number of fields we filled in. Why do you think we were able to find his information without having to fill in every field? (Class discussion.)

“Take a look at the Research Collections and Bibliography sections of the page to learn how the resource provides information for users.”

Demonstration 2 (paired with Lecture 2): “For memory.loc.gov, we will research a photograph of Richard J. Oglesby. Photographs and images are excellent primary sources to use in your assignment. To begin, select the ‘Browse’ feature at the top of the page. Next, we will select ‘Photos, prints’ under the ‘Browse Collections Containing.’ In the search field, type in ‘Richard J. Oglesby.’ This will return the result you see on the screen:

To find an image of Richard Oglesby, click on the link in the text “two hundred individuals represented in Hay’s album.” There, you will scroll down until you find Oglesby, Richard J. (Richard James), 1824-1899.4 You should see this image:”

Demonstration 3 (paired with lecture 3): “familysearch.org will show us census records, birth, marriage, and death certificates, military records, and much more. You can use this website to search for deceased family members or people of interest. We will use familysearch.org to search for Richard J. Oglesby in the 1830 United States Census records.

“To begin, select ‘Search’ at the top of the page. A drop-down menu will appear and will allow you to select “Records.” We will need to type in ‘Richard’ into the ‘First Names’ box, and ‘Oglesby’ into the ‘Last Names’ box. We learned from the previous demonstrations that Oglesby was born in Kentucky in 1824. We will use that information to help search in familysearch.org. Type ‘Kentucky’ into the ‘Birthplace’ box and ‘1824’ into the ‘Birth Year (Range)’ boxes. Scroll down and click the search button. Since I specified that we would be researching the 1830 United States Census records, we need to filter our results. Select ‘Collections’ and click on ‘United States Census, 1830.’ There, you will see a result for Richd Oglesby. When you click on it, the result provides information about the record, as well as a photograph of the census record. When you scroll down, you will see a chart that includes an affiliate name. The website has pulled the census record from the US National Archives and Records Administration.5

“Why do you think familysearch.org includes an affiliate name on each record page? (Class discussion.)

Demonstration 4 (paired with lecture 4): “For ProQuest Congressional, we will be completing an advanced search to find resources linked to Richard J. Oglesby. Select the ‘advanced’ feature on the homepage. As we learned earlier, Oglesby was a senator for 3 years. We will switch the field search from ‘all fields except full text’ to ‘Member of Congress (Cong Rec Bound and Cong Rec Daily).’ You will enter ‘Richard Oglesby’ into the correct name fields and for the date range, enter ‘1824 to 1899.’ This will return Congressional Records of which you can download the PDF and browse through proceedings:”6

  1. Class activity—practice using each resource. Class will work together in pairs to complete federal resource worksheet.
  2. Wrap up—how to use resources for homework assignment. Instructor will tell class how they can use resources to research their personal family history or a person of their choice.

Dissemination of Information

The resources I used in each demonstration are disseminated to the public mostly through online websites and databases. Many depositories were created to make the information more easily accessible, such as scanning in images, documents, etc., for users to view.

  • Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (bioguide.congress.gov) is very straight-forward and easy to use to research biographical information. This government website is accessible to anyone who has the web address. Once fields are filled in, results are displayed and provide information on whatever is selected. This resource is very specific in terms of the information that can be retrieved. It is a great resource in terms of navigation for my target audience.
  • The Library of Congress American Memory (memory.loc.gov) includes a variety of information accessible to users. The website can be accessed by anyone with the web address. Much of it is available to view online, however, some information must be viewed in person and provides where to find it or who to contact. Limiting searches through the Library of Congress American Memory is difficult to do. The results page only provides an option to view results as a list view or a gallery view. There are no options for an advanced search nor any limiters on the results page to narrow results and find exactly what the user is looking for. This resource is a little more in depth when it comes to navigation, which is great practice for my target audience.
  • The United States Census Bureau (census.gov) was more difficult to navigate through when researching information. In terms of the public accessing census records, that seemed to be more difficult to find than searching for data and statistics through the bureau. The United States Census Bureau provides a website that users can access with the web address and allows users to download pdfs to view materials. For my target audience, it would more difficult for them to navigate the website since they are just learning how to use various resources for research.
  • ProQuest Congressional (congressional.proquest.com) is the most difficult of the four to access publicly. Users must have access to the database to research information. However, the search features are better in that the advanced search option provides multiple ways to search for information and various resources within the database to search through. ProQuest Congressional is the most complex to use out of the four for my target audience. Middle school students are learning more how to use different resources to conduct research and this would be the most advanced they could start using. Accessing information is fairly easy once the user has accessed the database. There are pdfs available to view documents.

Evaluation and Conclusion

To conclude the lesson, the following script is provided:

“To wrap up our lesson, let’s go over what we learned today. You had the opportunity to learn about what government genealogy resources are, what primary and secondary sources are and how to analyze them, and a few of the many types of resources available.

“For each resource, we learned how to search for a person by using basic and advanced search features. We were able to research not only records, but images, charts, and documents that all related to Richard J. Oglesby. You were able to practice using each resource through the worksheets given to you. These skills will help you research information about your family or a person of your choice.

“Each government resource is included in your handout. Please hold on to those as you complete your school assignments so you can refer to them if needed. I am also available for appointments if you need additional help while conducting research. Do not hesitate to reach out to me by phone, email, or in person and I will help as much as I can.

“Thank you for joining me in this lesson today! I cannot wait to hear about your assignments when they are done!”


The topic for my final project was inspiring for me since I plan to continue working with children in a public library setting. Research is a huge aspect of librarianship, and I believe history is as well. The ability to show students how to utilize government genealogical resources helps strengthen their research skills to aid them in school and in life while helping my own research skills. Each resource I used provided a certain aspect of the example (Richard J. Oglesby) to show students how they can find a plethora of information, documents, images, charts, etc. that relate to what they are researching. I noticed as I started my research for this entire project that most teacher genealogical resources that are available when searching through Google are not centered around government documents. This realization made me decide to discuss the difference of results a user will get when searching through Google versus specific areas of government documents. I believe this can be addressed more in schools as well as in libraries. I believe librarians need to show teachers and students (and anyone else for that matter!) how this information is publicly accessible and should be utilized more than it is in classrooms.

I do think the government resources I used are more easily understood by older students. Much of what I researched and discovered would be difficult to teach to younger elementary students. I would like to see an increased effort within each government resource to have sections available for children to browse through. I know there are specific government websites that are geared towards children, like kids.gov, but they should not be limited to just one or two sites to experience the various resources available about genealogy and history.

Shalyn Rodriguez (srodriguez@shorewoodtroylibrary.org) University of Washington, LIS526 Government Publications, Head of Children’s Service, Shorewood-Troy Public Library, Shorewood, Illinois.


  1. US National Archives, “A Room for Treasures: Cool Things at the National Archives,” online video clip, YouTube, August 28, 2011.
  2. “Governor Richard James Oglesby,” National Governors Association, accessed May 25, 2017, https://www.nga.org/cms/home/governors/past-governors-bios/page_illinois/col2-content/main-content-list/title_oglesby_richard.default.html.
  3. “Oglesby, Richard James, (1824–1899),” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress: 1774–present, accessed May 25, 2017, http://bioguide.congress.gov/scripts/biodisplay.pl?index=O000048.
  4. “Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861–65. (James Wadsworth Family Papers),” American Memory, accessed May 26, 2017, https://memory.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/r?ammem/mcc:@field%28DOCID+@lit%28mcc/051%29%29.
  5. “United States Census, 1830,” database with images, FamilySearch, http://FamilySearch.org, June 14, 2016, citing NARA microfilm publication M19 (Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, n.d.).
  6. 168 Cong. Rec. 6, 167-168 (1877).

Appendix A. Federal Resource Handout

Appendix A. Federal Resource Handout

Appendix B. Federal Genealogical Resource Worksheet

Appendix B. Federal Genealogical Resource Worksheet
Slide 1. Ruger, J. J Stoner, and Beck & Pauli, “Camp Foster, Camp of the 8th Regiment & 6th Battery: O.N.G. Col. D. W. Thomas Comm. Gaylord’s Grove near Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio,” Library of Congress, Madison, Wis.: J. J. Stoner, 1880.

Slide 1. Ruger, J. J Stoner, and Beck & Pauli, “Camp Foster, Camp of the 8th Regiment & 6th Battery: O.N.G. Col. D. W. Thomas Comm. Gaylord’s Grove near Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio,” Library of Congress, Madison, Wis.: J. J. Stoner, 1880. Accessed May 26, 2017.

Slide 2. “Analyzing Documents,” DocsTeach

Slide 2. “Analyzing Documents,” DocsTeach, accessed May 30, 2017, https://www.docsteach.org/tools/analyzing-documents.

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress listing for Richard James Oglesby

Biographical Directory of the United States Congress listing for Richard James Oglesby.

Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65 (James Wadsworth Family Papers) from Words and Deeds in American History

Civil War photograph album, ca. 1861-65 (James Wadsworth Family Papers) from Words and Deeds in American History, https://memory.loc.gov/ammem/mcchtml/corhome.html.

Carte de Visite featuring Richard James Oglesby

Carte de Visite featuring Richard James Oglesby.

Congressional Record from ProQuest Congressional

Congressional Record from ProQuest Congressional.


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