Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
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The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Thirteen/WNET and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History
Reviewed Jan. 1–7, 2008

The co-chairmen Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman founded the Gilder Lehrman Institute for American History (GLI) in 1994 in New York to promote “the study and love of American history.” The GLI serves several audiences including historians, educators, students, and the general public. The institute’s Web site is at once an archive, a teaching resource, an electronic exhibit, and a central repository for American history resources. Historians and teachers can find the resources that most pertain to their profession by going to the links designated for them. The collection specializes in the colonial, revolutionary, antebellum, Civil War, and Reconstruction eras, as well as in slavery and women’s history during those periods, but it also includes an impressive range of resources and documents covering U.S. history to the present day. To limit my analysis, I focused on what the site offers regarding the experiences of freed slaves in the South after the Civil War. Despite the limited topic, I had to engage in a lengthy search of each section of the site to find resources.

The Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History offers several ways to find historical documents. The collection includes a searchable database of over sixty thousand documents—this is misleading, however, because many of the documents are not available online. A simple search for “Ku Klux Klan” (KKK) resulted in four documents: Two letters, one photograph, and one pamphlet. The links to the two letters included not fully legible photographs of the originals. One of the letters had a transcript. The other two documents were not accessible online. The link for requesting copies and for visitor information was easily accessible; however, you may need to pay for access or reproductions. The “Document of the Week” page and its archive of past documents of the week offer other paths to finding documents. Each of those pages includes one document with a facsimile, transcript, suggested reading list, and overview. Looking at the “Archive of Past Documents” page for the period 1851—1875, I found a letter from a Klansman threatening a black Republican official in Lincoln County, Georgia. “Treasures of the Collection” presents twenty-four highlighted resources (for example, an 1888 letter from Frederick Douglass noting the disenfranchisement of black voters).

Detail of a GLI teaching module webpage.

Teaching modules on standard U.S. history topics (for example, the Revolutionary War and September 11) include historical documents. Authored by Steven Mintz, a professor of history and director of the American Cultures Program at the University of Houston, the modules include an overview of the topic, recommended historical documents, and learning tools such as lesson plans, quizzes, and activities. The “Primary Source Documents” for each module include a list of historical documents; the twenty-six listed in the Reconstruction unit come from the Library of Congress. The document titles and links do not indicate the specific topics of each document, nor is it clear how or why those documents were selected; therefore, finding the right document for a lesson can take some time. The “Learning Tools” page includes more documents. In the “Interpreting Primary Sources” section, documents have been adapted and shortened from the originals; however, the attribution information is incomplete, and there is no information about finding the originals. For example, reading 1, on Thaddeus Stevens’s ideas about radical Reconstruction, includes the date—1865—but not the genre and title of the source or where it was found. Reading 6 simply lists W. E. B. Du Bois as the author but does not include a year, title, or genre of the source. The documents in the “Primary Source Documents with Classroom Questions” section were compiled by teachers who have participated in GIL summer seminars and include edited primary sources with full attribution information as well as background and five questions. Caroline Scudder’s lesson includes a rich testimony by a former slave and member of the Georgia legislature who had been harassed by the KKK. That document had not appeared in any of my other searches of the site. “Recommended Resources,” found on the historians‘ and teachers’ pages, provides links to other Web sites with historical documents. For teachers, the modules give helpful overviews and pull together interesting documents, but, without identifying information, it takes time to determine if, how, and when they might be used.

The “Recommended Resources” page is also extremely helpful for developing background knowledge and considering scholarly interpretations of freed slaves in the South during Reconstruction. It offers access to award-winning publications and online journals, historical associations, Web sites, institutes, centers, historical sites, and museums, as well as reading lists on featured topics. The “Public Programs and Exhibitions” page includes lists of conferences, symposia, and speaking engagements. It is incredible to have all of this information in one place. Podcasts of lectures by seven historians offer listeners an opportunity to learn about current scholarly thinking, such as that by Doris Kearns Goodwin on Abraham Lincoln and James McPherson on Antietam. Each teaching module also offers visual aids, recommended reading lists, and other resources. On Reconstruction, Eric Foner’s Reconstruction (1988) tops the list. Films such as Birth of a Nation (1915) and Gone with the Wind (1939) are also recommended. Finally, several valuable Web sites on related topics are listed with each module. In this case, the Reconstruction sites at the Library of Congress, Duke University, and Harper’s Weekly are included.

Another path to developing expertise is through GLI’s summer institutes for elementary, secondary, and college faculty. History Now, the Gilder Lehrman quarterly online journal, also provides access to historical scholarship. The second issue includes several articles on slavery, including Eric Foner’s discussion of the Reconstruction amendments, Annette Gordon-Reed’s consideration of historical evidence, Douglas Egerton’s analysis of the material culture of slave resistance, and David Blight’s work with slave narratives. Beyond offering documents and samples of scholarship, the site provides other exemplary resources such as information about fellowships, grants, awards, traveling and online exhibitions, and outreach in schools.

The Gilder Lehrman site is useful for historians, educators, and laypeople interested in the political and social history of conventional topics in U.S. history, particularly before 1877. The site pulls together a considerable array of information, scholarship, and documents in one place. The biggest limitations are the minimal online access to the GLI collection and the inability to search the entire site at once. But for those willing to take some time, the site can be a valuable resource.

Chauncey Monte-Sano
University of Maryland
College Park, Maryland