American History Textbooks, 1900-1970

Project Director: Abby Davis

American History Textbooks from the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library

General Project Description and Specifics

For many generations of American school children, the ultimate authority in history class was the textbook. These singular texts were influential to the students' understanding of history in a way that the internet-savvy high school student of the 21st century might have trouble grasping. The New York Public Library's Schwarzman Collection has over 800 American history textbooks spanning more than 200 years, but these books are available offsite. My project would first select 2-3 books from each decade spanning 1900 through 1970 and then digitize a selection from each of these books on a commonly covered topic that would highlight the way these textbooks discuss different demographics in American society. I narrow the timeline from 1900 to 1970 because that is roughly the time when, thanks to Progressive agitators and labor laws, most American children attended some formal school, up to the very beginning of the era of "political correctness."

High school students rely less and less on physical textbooks alone to study American history; if they do use one, they often supplement it with a wide range of primary and secondary source documents often hosted on the internet. I would like this website to appeal to the internet-friendly format these students are used to, while at the same time 1) informing them how students in the past learned about American history, leading them to ponder not only how the facts have changed (or not) but to examine the larger question of how we teach American history and why and 2) allowing them to critically examine these documents for bias, paying close attention to language use and connotation.

Ideally, I would start with a few ready-made comparisons for students to see, but the site would also allow them to bring pages of their choosing side-by-side for a closer examination. I would also have an extensive key word search. I do not think the entire Schwarzman collection of American history books need to be scanned in their entirety, but eventually, for example, being able to click on a topic like "Civil War" and seeing how every book in their collection treats the battle of Ft. Sumpter could be interesting.

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