Photos, Maps, and More: Graphic Inquiry and Primary Sources in the School Library

Bober: Analyzing Images - teaser image

Whether students are analyzing political cartoons or tracking troop movements on a Revolutionary War era map, visually rich primary sources can play an important role throughout the inquiry process. Graphics enhance the knowledge-building experience by providing an added dimension to student questioning, information exploration, assimilation, drawing inferences, and reflection. While some learning environments involve youth in examining documents such as maps, photographs, or diagrams, others use graphic tools as a way for students to organize ideas, visualize relationships, or make comparisons.


Inquiry flourishes in a nurturing learning environment where Socratic questioning involves students in deep thinking about a topic. Primary source visual materials provide an effective jumping off spot for questioning.

From images of child laborers working in coal mines at the turn of the 20th century to teens reading comic books during the Cold War, historical photographs containing children can be used to trigger questions about what life was like for young people during a particular time period. For instance, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising photograph immerses youth in life during World War II.

Inquiry begins with an open mind that observes the world. Show children photographs from different time periods such as a caged animal from a 19th-century zoo versus a modern conservation area. Or, have learners examine aerial images of changes in coastline urbanization and habitation over the past century. Ask students to label the images with questions they have about changes over time.

While well-known images can help set the stage for learning, also consider lesser-known images. In addition to sharing a photo of a landmark like the Statue of Liberty, share the original diagrams or floor plans of the location and ask students to think about why it was constructed. Or, share a shocking or unusual image of an iconic structure such as the U.S. Capitol after it was burned during the War of 1812 or Mount Rushmore under construction. Multiple, unusual images may spawn deeper questions.

Inspiration originates in genuine curiosity. Scientists and naturalists throughout history have used field notebooks to visualize their questions. The EcoReader ( collection contains dozens of these notebooks. Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks are filled with fascinating visuals to stimulate thinking about the history of science. Encourage youth to brainstorm scientific ideas and create their own lab notes. A digital version of one of da Vinci's notebooks is available through the British Library (


As youth are exploring materials in search of ideas and information to address their questions, encourage them to seek out the broad range of primary source charts and graphs, illustrations, diagrams, maps, and images available. "Family Ties on the Underground Railroad" from the Historical Society of Pennsylvania ( contains illustrations, diagrams, maps, photographs, infographics, and other images to help students understand the Underground Railroad.

The idea of using several related visuals in a single poster to convey an idea, like the infographics of today, has been around for a long time. An 1858 visual titled "Telegraph Chart" ( uses maps, lines, flags, and other illustrations to explain the significance of long distance telegraph communication. Use this visual to discuss the impact of the telegraph on other forms of information delivery such as the Pony Express. Get youth involved in making their own infographics to explain other historical events.

Exploring flags, national symbols, and other visual representations of "big ideas" is an effective way to dig into social studies. Involve students in tracing the history of the American flag through all its changes. The Interactive Flag ( at the Smithsonian website contains hotspots where youth can explore different aspects of the flag that inspired the national anthem. Involve them in using PowerPoint to create their own interactive flag for the U.S. or other countries.

Some students have a difficult time taking notes. Ask students to create visual notes by drawing lines, circles, and labels on graphics. Post-it Notes are also an effective way to jot down ideas related to maps or illustrations.


Three Learning Opportunities with Primary Sources

  1. Help students connect with topics through kids' experiences

    German-Jewish child refugees of the Kindertransport, 1945

    Desegregated classroom in Washington, D.C., 1955

    Children coal miners. 1911

  2. Consider Change over Time

    Photo essay on urban growth

    Compare student play in the 19th century and today and

    Compare your classroom to one in ancient Greece

  3. Spark questions with unusual or new perspectives on a familiar place or event

    A Native American portrayal of a battle with the U.S. military

    The Golden Gate Bridge under construction

    The Statue of Library being assembled

    George Washington…wearing a toga?

Once students have explored the range of primary sources available, it's time for them to process this information, build connections, and integrate their new ideas with existing knowledge. This can be the toughest part of the inquiry process for some children. They may experience information overload or have difficulty distinguishing fact from opinion. Provide students with graphic scaffolds to help them organize, compare, and think about information.

Putting images on a timeline, graphic organizer, cause/effect charts, or map can help students see patterns and make visual comparisons. Start by asking them to categorize or sequence images based on their background knowledge about the topic. Use the "trash or treasure" approach to toss out images that don't fit the pattern or aren't useful in telling the story of an event or process. Use DocsTeach ( tools from the National Archives for examples and ideas.

Examining a photograph, painting, or drawing of an event can help students make connections between the people and the activity. Involve youth in connecting the people who signed the Declaration of Independence with the signing event. Ask each student to select a person to label in John Trumbull's painting Declaration of Independence. Then, learn about this person and their role in the event.

Use historical drawings and paintings to help students explore the everyday lives of people who lived in the past. Compare approaches to fishing in 1552 with an image from the Nuremberg Library ( versus today. What aspects have remained the same and what activities are different? Search art museum digital collections for other works of art reflecting daily activities in the time period under study.

Keep in mind that primary source documents aren't just tied to history and social studies projects. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has information related to government health research. The CDC's infographics provide easy-to-understand information about the Zika virus presented in an understandable way (

To add a historical perspective, go to the U.S. National Library of Medicine's Digital Collections ( and search for "posters" to see how health information has been conveyed to the public in the past. Ask students to think about public awareness and how our understanding of disease prevention has changed over time.


Historical thinking using primary sources encourages students to analyze evidence and design arguments based on this evidence. Graphics can provide visual evidence that can be applied to solve problems and make decisions.

As part of a science project, involve students in tracing the history of an invention. Patents are fascinating primary sources and contain illustrations of inventions. Use Google Patents ( to help explain how and why devices evolve, such as changes to fire extinguishers after the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire.

Many students have a difficult time translating their notes into evidence that can be used to draw conclusions. Use graphics along with lines, labels, speech bubbles, and phrases to help them provide visual explanations. Ask students to place two photos side by side and share their comparisons and conclusions. Students might compare a New York City street scene in 1900 (for example, with one from today. From transportation to economics, ask students to identify changes over time and draw conclusions about their impact.

NASA's "Images of Change" ( helps users easily compare how climate-sensitive locations are changing. Photographs and satellite images like these can be powerful tools in creating persuasive messages.

Involve students sharing different visual primary sources and comparing time period, point of view, or perspective.


Reflection is an essential, yet often overlooked part of the graphic inquiry process. Encourage students to use visuals as they think about the success of their inquiry and the impact of their decisions. Get them involved in sharing their favorite visuals and ideas.

Rather than a written reflection, ask students to select a photograph that represents their project. Or, have them select a World War II-era poster they would hang in the library if they were going to school then. Would they choose "Loose Lips Sink Ships" or "Plant a Victory Garden?" Ask them how this choice represents their new understandings.

In some cases, students can get lost in a large project. Ask them to focus on one location or event they think best represents their question or inquiry. A student might choose a map depicting the Battle of Gettysburg ( and write a reflection.

Graphic Fluency and the School Library

To be successful, students need skills in accessing, analyzing, and synthesizing information found in graphic sources. Going beyond the ability to distinguish a photograph from a drawing, they must be able to critically evaluate the content of visual resources to separate fact from fiction. Has a photo been cropped or edited in a way that changes the messages? Does the presentation of a chart somehow skew the data?

Students often find images online, but aren't sure if they're in the public domain. Use Google Images to trace graphics to their origin. Students can often find the origin of the work cited at Wikimedia Commons. Also, look for library or museum digital collections.

Although government agencies such as the Library of Congress and National Archives are known for their digital collections, keep in mind that other agencies house their own collections, such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Digital Library and NASA's Image Galleries. University libraries and archives are another excellent source for primary source visuals. Look to individual state libraries and archives for materials focusing on a particular region. Finally, local libraries and historical societies may also have useful resources. Use "digital collection" in an Internet search to locate these materials.

Seek out topic-specific digital collections for focused primary sources. For instance, the Disability Museum ( contains fascinating graphics featuring individuals through history with physical and mental challenges.

Look for primary source collections that provide visual organizers such as timelines and maps. The Digital Public Library of America ( allows users to explore by place using a map, or by time using a timeline. It's even possible to browse by the color of a visual.

Keep in mind that digital collections may contain hundreds or even thousands of visuals. It's easy for students to be overwhelmed. Pre-select images for specific learning experiences or help students design searches that will help them narrow their focus.


Inquiry is a process that involves asking questions and seeking evidence that can be used to design arguments and make decisions. Although primary sources can play an important role in learning, it's not possible to find a graphic that fits every situation. Instead, use visual representations where they make sense in the inquiry process.

About the Author

Annette Lamb, PhD, is a senior lecturer in the Department of Library and Information Science at Indiana University at Indianapolis. She holds a Ph.D. in educational technology and has written hundreds of articles and numerous books including Graphic Inquiry co-authored with Daniel Callison.

MLA Citation

Lamb, Annette. "Photos, Maps, and More: Graphic Inquiry and Primary Sources in the School Library." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2023, Accessed 28 Jan. 2023.

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