School Beat: Calisphere–Our History at Our Fingertips

by Lisa Schiff on September 28, 2006

Imagine having ready access to thousands of images, documents and diaries reflecting the complex and powerful past of California. Now imagine students reading transcribed oral histories for a school paper or teachers pulling together archived newspaper articles and political cartoons to help them draw their pupils into the classroom experience. This is the type of rich educational process that we all imagine.

Luckily we no longer have to just imagine, as a resource supporting these very kinds of activities and more has just come into existence. Calisphere ( is a website recently launched by the California Digital Library of the University of California in order to present the vast digital resources of the UC system in a way that is easily useful by teachers and students.

Described as “the University of California’s free public gateway to a world of primary sources,” the site brings into the limelight a vast collection of over 150,000 digital items available for searching, download and use. Teachers, students and the general public can find amazing photographs from significant times and eras, from the crumbled streets of San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake to protests during the Free Speech Movement.

Designed especially to help bring primary sources into K-12 classrooms, the site is organized into four areas that have some overlap. First are what have been labeled “Themed Collections.” These are groupings of content organized by discrete time periods with original contextual essays pulling everything together. Time periods begin with the “Gold Rush Era” (1848-1865) and end with a period entitled “Social Reform”‘ (1950s-1970s). Under each section are a handful of subtopics.

For instance, in the “Gold Rush” themed collection is the topic “Diversity in the Changing State.” Included on the page for this subject are twenty photographs and illustrations. One of the photographs is captioned “Morning Council on the Merced” and depicts a formal meeting of Native Americans. One of the illustration shows Mongolian mine washers at work.

Along with the images are suggested discussion questions (“What ethnic groups lived in California in the mid-1800s?” and “Why did people from all over the world come to California?”), a quick description of the images, a short overview of the topic, and a listing of the California Content standards, by grade level and subject, for which this material would be appropriate.

The next area is entitled “California Cultures” and offers rich lesson plans with associated images and primary source material organized around the experiences of four ethnic groups: African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics Americans, and Native Americans. Two examples show the breadth and uniqueness of this content.
The first is a lesson that can be tailored for grades 4-8 and centers on the life of Dr. Ralph J. Bunch, who was the first African American to be given the Novel Peace Prize. In addition to focusing on this man’s life, the material provides a look at Jim Crow laws and segregation. The second example is a lesson designed for grades spanning 8-12, and examines the history of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ stadium, specifically the impact on the established Mexican-American community that was dislocated in order to build the sports facility.

The third area of the site is essentially a pass-through to the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive, which provides access to documents, oral histories and other material regarding the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Users can browse this powerful collection by standard categories such as region or photographer/artist, but can also go directly to sets of material about specific assembly centers, such as Tanforan, or Internment Camps, such as Tule Lake.

The last area of Calisphere is a browsable selection of terms from the California Content Standards, all of which have source material associated with them. Among the many topics users can click on are “Aerospace Industry,” “Dams, ” “Huerta, Dolores,” “National Parks,” “Union Pacific Railroad,” or “Water,” which will bring up to the screen a collection of related images. This area provides easy access to students and teachers who want to quickly get at sources for their topic.

Calisphere is a wonderful resource in and of itself, and hopefully it will soon be discovered and heavily trafficked by students and teachers throughout the state. But it also is an example of something equally important–a natural and extremely useful connection across the divide of our “kindergarten through college” public education system. The University of California (UC) is the steward of many of our public cultural artifacts and having easy access to them is of great benefit to our K-12 system. UC’s own success as a public education endeavor is greatly determined by the strength of the schools in all the reaches of California that feed into it. The more it can extend a hand to those students and their teachers, the better for us all.

Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children who attend McKinley Elementary School in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of the board of directors of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco ( She is also on staff at the California Digital Library, but was not a part of the Calisphere project.

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