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American Memory Historical Collections: A Digital Resource

American Memory began as a pilot program in 1990 when a small selection of the Library of Congress's rich holdings of primary materials were digitized and captured on videodisc and CD-ROM. These resources were made available at forty-four universities, public libraries, and K-12 school libraries around the country. In 1994, with the creation of the World Wide Web, it became possible to serve these digitized resources directly over the Internet, making them immediately available to any computer user with a networked connection, and in 1995 the Library of Congress committed itself to an unprecedented effort to digitize millions of historical items in its collections and make them freely available online. American Memory became the primary vehicle of this effort. Not long after, the Ameritech Corporation funded a competition through which American Memory was expanded to include primary documents from other institutions. In 1996, The Learning Page was added as a resource for K-12 teachers who wished to use American Memory materials in their classrooms; and Today in History premiered in 1997.

As of this writing in the summer of 2003, more than one hundred American Memory collections have been digitized and presented as part of the still-expanding Web site, encompassing materials from almost every division of the Library of Congress. The audiences using American Memory collections are varied, comprising scholars, students, and lifelong learners from the United States and around the world as well as members of Congress. The user base continues to grow as ever faster computers are installed in homes, schools, offices, and libraries.

Each American Memory collection encompasses a group of materials that are related to one another in some way, such as by creator, subject, format, or collector. All these materials were originally created in some other form, such as a book, pamphlet, photograph, or motion picture, and have been digitized by the Library or one of its partners for online use. The benefits of digitization are enormous, ranging from ease of access and greatly enhanced searching capabilities to preservation of rare or fragile materials through the use of digital surrogates. Each American Memory collection is accompanied by a set of documents that provides a framework for understanding major aspects of the collection's historical context, organization, and digitization.

The challenges of copyright mean that nearly all American Memory collections represent materials that have either passed into the public domain by age or were originally created under the sponsorship of the U.S. government. Some of the most popular and widely-used collections, such as Built in America: Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record, 1933-Present and America from the Great Depression to World War II: Photographs from the FSA and OWI, ca. 1935-1945, arose from cultural programs sponsored by the federal government during years of economic hardship in the 1930s.

Occasionally, collections of material still under copyright, such as the The Hannah Arendt Papers, are made available by special arrangement with the copyright holder whereby only portions of the online collection are accessible off-site. For more information about copyright, see the document entitled "Copyright and Other Restrictions" that accompanies every American Memory collection online.

To facilitate access to American Memory from around the country and the world, the Library has provided online search tips, FAQ's, instructions for viewing digital formats, and a digital reference service, as well as The Learning Page. Teachers and professional visitors to the Library are invited to participate in on-site training workshops. And librarians and other Web archive developers will be interested in the technical information on "Building Digital Collections" that is an additional online resource from American Memory.


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