One Teacher’s Year Inside the World’s Largest Library

Apr 14, 2020

The largest library in the world contains more than 168 million items, with materials in some 470 languages, and is located in Washington, D.C.

The Library of Congress, situated right behind the U.S. Capitol Building and just steps from the Supreme Court of the United States, is a popular spot in D.C., beloved for its ornate ceilings, historic reading room and, well, everything it represents.

This reporter’s most recent visit to the library led down into the basement, past a room where scenes from the movie National Treasure were filmed and into a recording studio, for a conversation with Jen Reidel, this year’s Teacher-in-Residence at the Library of Congress and this week’s guest on the EdSurge Podcast.

The Teacher-in-Residence program is about 20 years old, and it invites one U.S. teacher to spend a year at the Library of Congress researching, writing and seeking out primary sources that K-12 teachers across the country could use in their classroom lessons. Then the library makes that source material available and easily accessible to all.

Past Teachers-in-Residence include a middle school science teacher, a kindergarten teacher and a performing arts teacher, but for this year’s program, the library specifically wanted to bring on a civics teacher to build out its digital collection of civics-focused curriculum materials.

Reidel has been teaching high school civics and history for over two decades. This interview was conducted at the library back in February, before the COVID-19 outbreak restricted in-person meetings, and when it was still conceivable to think and talk about things other than the global pandemic.

Listen to this week’s podcast on Apple Podcasts, Overcast, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music, or wherever you listen to podcasts, or use the player below. Or read the partial transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Start by just telling me a little bit about you—where you're from, how long you've been in the classroom, a bit of biographical information.

Jen Reidel: Well, I'm born and raised in Washington State. I grew up in Seattle, and I got my first teaching job in Linden, which is a small, Dutch farming town. I taught there for 19 years, and taught pretty much anything that would keep me employed within social studies. But my passion and what I really had a niche for there was law-related education, civics, and then AP government and politics. I also taught geography and then English as well.

Can you explain what the Teacher-in-Residence program is?

It becomes what I think the individual Teacher-in-Residence wants it to be. For me, I understood I was coming on board as a practicing classroom teacher, and that the library was committed to hearing a voice from people within the field to make sure that both the products, and the teacher workshops, and anything that is done for teachers, and eventually for students, is useful, and is engaging, and is in alignment with best practices.


This week’s podcast sponsor is Emporia State University’s online Elementary Education program: designed for career changers interested in becoming elementary teachers.

Know anyone who might be a good fit? Let us know here.


I understood I would assist, or help in any way possible, the professional development team in our office. I also understood that a lot of my time would be searching the library's collections with my civics and social studies lens, and trying to find primary sources that I thought could be used. And then, like in our blog, I would identify a primary source, and then give a little bit of context, but suggest ways it could be used in the classroom.

The other thing that is talked about in the description for the Teacher-in-Residence is that the teacher would use the time to try to create meaningful resources to take back to their classroom, or their respective districts.

Would it be accurate to say that a big part of your job is going through the library's resources, and finding materials—using your expertise as a 23-year veteran in the classroom—for classrooms all over the country as well as your home classroom?

Yeah, it's kind of, you're juggling both of those. They're not mutually exclusive, and you're hoping that you have a broad audience. The blog is probably something, while I think on average I've maybe done two entries in a month, that's something that I hope that anything I put out on that … a teacher might use.

I looked at school desegregation, and after Little Rock, the closing of the schools to avoid further integration the year after that. We have some amazing photos in our collections that show an empty hallway. It shows students getting their education through TV because the school system shut down for a year, refusing to integrate after that momentous year.

Recently, we've spent a lot of time on the Rosa Parks exhibit here, and we have her papers that are digitized. We spent a lot of time trying to find resources for our teacher workshop we had. One of them is a fairly short document, and Rosa Parks wrote on everything. She wrote on the back of her receipt, she wrote on the back of an envelope, and this particular one describes why she chose, on the day of her arrest, why she chose to refuse to give up her seat.

Rosa Parks' written account of her arrest. (Library of Congress)

What's really fascinating about it, and one of the teacher's interactions in our workshop got me thinking about this, was she crosses out a lot of words in her description, like she's working really hard to get the right words. It's almost as though she knew how important for the rest of us, in posterity, it would be to know why she did what she did, and what she hoped it would accomplish.

It's not a very long document, I highlighted it, and I suggested that you could look at it through a lot of lenses, both the writing process, you can look at what her word choice reflected about segregated Jim Crow America, and then ask kids to surmise, “Why do you think she chose the word she did knowing what you know about that time period?”

I mean, that's the thing that's been amazing is just to sit and reflect upon these pillars, in my mind, of American history who are so much more than what we often describe them as. Rosa Parks is the bus boycott, no doubt, but she is so much more than that, and she endured so much more than that. I mean, we're standing on her shoulders.

Do you by chance remember any of the words she crossed out?

What happened is she was arrested, and she's having an interaction with a police officer, and she says to the officer, [I’m paraphrasing], “Why is the law the way it is? Why do you treat us this way?” She uses the pronoun “we,” as in, “Why are we treated this way?” That was really interesting to me that in her interaction as a singular person with the officers, she uses a plural pronoun. The officer responds to her and says, “I don't know. The law is the law.”

Maybe I'm reading into it more than I should, but I thought it was really a poignant interaction that suggests that, I think in reading her words and knowing about her, at the core of who she was, she represented all people that have been oppressed. In that moment, I believe that officer represented all people who had power and had privilege, and he didn't have to think about anybody beyond himself, and she did.

And then the words surrounding the “why,” because after that point she talks about how she basically did what he wanted, and she's trying to describe in her deleted words why she didn't resist. That in itself, like if I could ask her, “Why? He just told you that ‘The law is the law, lady.’ It suggests to you in his tone and word choice: “I don't know why it is. It just is the way it is. I'm not going to question it.” I would love to ask her, “In your description of that day, why weren't you more feisty? You started out with, ‘I chose to resist this day because I've been pushed around all my life.’ But then why, at the end of that, did you say, ‘I did what he wanted’?”

That's a really interesting example.

That's one of the things that, in this job, I've had to learn. I should know the exact amount of millions in the collections, we have so much, I know I should—

The internet told me it was 168 million.

Of that 168 million, not everything is digitized, and so the lens we use in the Learning and Innovation department, [which I fall under], is anything we're going to suggest for classroom use needs to be digitized.

Because it's really kind of unfair to say, “Hey, teacher type, this is a really compelling primary source to engage your students in history and analysis, but you have to physically be sitting at the library. Oh, and actually, there's copyright restrictions, too. Sorry, figure something else out.”

Anything we promote on the blogs, on articles or at conferences, is completely free of any restriction. That makes the job a little tricky sometimes, but it also means when we do find those gems, these primary sources can hopefully really engage students, and be compelling as they critically analyze the past.

If I understand correctly, Teachers-in-Residence devote a lot of their time to one particular project. Is that the case?

They can, because you're told to propose a project in your application, and ultimately your idea would be that you're using the resources of the library in your physical time and space here to then take back something that can be meaningful and impacting in a classroom setting. So what I proposed was I wanted to create case studies of civic principles that were anchored in different historical moments in time. I think the power of civics ... is that if students can see that civic principle, like separation of powers, or checks and balances, how that was interpreted, tested, defined or abused in different moments in time, they can see a much richer understanding of that civic ideal, and when as a nation we've gotten it right, and when we've really flubbed up.

I proposed that, of, say, five civic ideals, I would write two to three case studies using primary sources. Some of what I've done on blogs—I have chosen to spend my time trying to curate sources I think would be powerful to use in a U.S. history and civics class—are also things that I'll take back as my project.

But what a lot of my time has been spent, and I like it, is on professional development, and assisting our professional development team on teacher trainings, and talking through, ‘What sources are we going to use?’ ‘What strategies would best support those sources? What do we hope our attendees are going to get out of it?’

What would you say you have learned the most, or maybe an “aha” moment you had, over the last few months?

My “aha” is I have been given the gift of stepping out of the classroom, which, [don’t get me wrong], I love kids, and I love helping kids get their lights turned on for learning. I currently work in an alternative high school. [For] most of the students that come to us, the traditional models of high school haven't worked well for them, and a lot of them are dealing with pretty big issues in their lives, [such as] addiction and homelessness.

It's a great job, it's also a very taxing job. And for me to have a year to step outside of that, and remind myself that I'm actually a very curious person. The sense of wonder that when you're in the classroom, and you're trying to meet the students’ needs and stay ahead of the game for what they're going to work on next in the week, there's a lot of spinning plates. Those spinning plates can start to limit your paradigms, and start to limit your sense of wonder as a person—and sense of wonder in a classroom. Because you have a lot of systems that are telling you what needs to happen, and sometimes those systems can kind of squelch out curiosity and creativity.

For next year's Teacher-in-Residence, the library is specifically looking for a teacher of journalism or economics. I know that's a little bit different than what your focus area is, but what would your advice be to him or her?

If someone is given this opportunity, come in and be grounded in the fact that you were selected because you have expertise in a particular area, but that doesn't mean that you know everything. Yes, you are an expert, but you don't know everything … they're not mutually exclusive. I think that allows you to just learn for learning’s sake, and sometimes you're going to go down rabbit holes that you're like, “O.K., that didn't yield anything productive.” But I think it actually does because it pushes your view of the world, of information, of people.

I was asked to talk about the Teacher-in-Residence position to the Advisory Committee on the Records of Congress. If you don't know what that is, I didn't either. I had to look it up. But then I went, and I prepared my speech telling what I did, and then they gave me 10 minutes.

Ten minutes is a really long time, and then I was like, “Oh shoot, what am I going to talk about?” I thought, “Self, tell them what the realities are of the classroom,” because the people sitting at this table was the Archivist of the United States, it was the Historian of the House and the Senate. It was National Archives staff members, people from high up in public libraries. These are the people that are curating and archiving our collective stories, and they really want to make things accessible for teachers and students.

When I realized that, I thought, “O.K., why don't you tell them what your experience has been, and what does it mean to have a 21st century classroom?” Because most of the people sitting at this table probably were pretty good students. They weren't students coming from marginalized situations that need all of this information and stories even more so than other pockets of students.


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