CRM Journal

Media Review

Our Documents

National History Day and National Archives and Records Administration; maintained by the National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, DC; accessed July 11-16, 2003.


"Our Documents" features 100 digitized documents chosen from among the thousands of public laws, Supreme Court decisions, inaugural speeches, treaties, and constitutional amendments that influenced the course of United States history from 1776 to 1965. Starting with Richard Henry Lee's resolution of June 7, 1776, to the Second Continental Congress that became the basis of the Declaration of Independence, the documents include the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court ruling upholding "separate but equal" accommodations, the United Nations Charter, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 that enforced the 15th Amendment by prohibiting mechanisms that discriminated against voters of color.

The website was launched in September 2002 as part of a White House initiative to engage students, teachers, parents, and the public in a national reflection on citizenship in a democracy. While the site may not have sparked a national discussion of citizenship, it is reaching the students and teachers who are the core audiences for the site's developers, the National Archives and Records Administration and National History Day. The National Archives provides instruction for teachers in the use of primary documents in the classroom, making them a perfect partner for National History Day, which for over 25 years has engaged students in grades 6-12 in discovering history using primary documents.

Selecting so few documents from so many was a subjective process and there will be disagreement about what should have been included. A careful review reveals a list that reflects important events in each decade, and discloses both the strengths of our democracy and the weaknesses of a country that has enslaved and discriminated. As a whole, the 100 documents reveal the complex and sometimes contentious history of our Nation—although the homepage would benefit from an overview of what is meant by "milestone documents."

The design is consistent throughout and the use of icons and layering of information make it easy to navigate. The site changes weekly, featuring three new documents on the homepage. One click brings up the list of documents. Click on a document for a digitized image and transcription, a discussion of its significance, its citation, and a high-resolution PDF file that will print the document on 8- by 11-inch paper.

In addition to the documents, which alone are a valuable resource, teachers may download either a 2-page tip sheet on how to work with primary documents, or an 80-page teacher source book. This tool includes information on how to develop lesson plans, three model lesson plans, a reading list, a bibliography that recommends up to nine books per document to provide historical context, and a timeline that places the documents in a chronology with a brief annotation on the significance of each.

"Our Documents" is an outstanding resource for teachers and students. It provides national access to important documents, most of which are not available in their original form to the general public. According to Mark Robinson of National History Day, a large percentage of the more than 2,000 students who participated in the National History Day competition in June at College Park, Maryland, used documents from this website.

Some historians will feel that important documents have been excluded from the list of "milestones." To respond, a campaign has been launched through national periodicals and the website to invite teachers, students, and others to vote on what they feel are the 10 most significant documents in American history.

Mychalene Giampaoli
The City Museum of Washington, DC