Like the National Archives, the Library of Congress (LOC) is a key repository of documents related to the founding and history of the United States of America.
Established in 1800 by an act of Congress as a reference library for the legislative branch, today’s LOC has a broad mandate to “further the progress of knowledge and creativity for the benefit of the American people.” It performs this and its other functions from three imposing buildings on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.
Of most interest to writers and genealogists is the vast collection of books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, technical reports, personal papers, maps, audio and video recordings, microforms, sheet music, manuscripts posters, prints and jeepers, a lot of other stuff. The entire LOC collection numbers over 150 million items—a fraction of NARA’s holdings, but by no means a piddling amount.
One of the great features of finding stuff at the LOC is the amount of their material that has been, in one way or another, brought into the digital world. Peruse the list of holdings in the Manuscript Division and you’ll note that a box-level—and sometimes even a folder-level—finding aid for each collection is available for online viewing. That makes finding stuff a lot easier, but for the most part you’ll still need to request the relevant department to reproduce the files you seek.
How do we start our troll through the Library of Congress? The well organized Home Page is cleanly designed for easy navigation. You’ll note nine topic windows in the center that will lead you deeper into the site. On the right side is a list of slightly more specific topics. Up at the top are two links that will help make the digital LOC experience fun and fruitful: DigitalCollections and Library Catalogs.
Click on Digital Collections. Way back in 1994 the LOC began to digitize selections of its original holdings to put online. As the Library likes to say, they provide “one of the largest bodies of noncommercial high-quality content on the Internet . . . [so that] those who may never come to Washington can gain access to the treasures of the nation’s library.” In this regard, the LOC is way ahead of NARA. And as someone obsessed with finding stuff, I say bless ‘em.
Let’s delve. Click on American History and Culture. That brings up a page with a list of 18 topics. Our example subject for today is the U.S. Army Air Forces 306th Bomb Group (Heavy) based out of Thurleigh, Bedfordshire, England during WWII. So click on Veterans History and then Search The Veterans Collections.
A search box offering a number of options appears. Type in “306th bomb group”, and tick-off “service unit/ship,” “World War II,” and “Army Air Forces/Corps.” Then hit GO.
This should bring up 64+ hits of names of veterans who were in some way connected with the 306th. You’ll notice that about 20% of the listings have a View Digital Collection icon. This means that some aspect of that fellow’s file is accessible online—audio or video interviews, and/or interview transcripts, and sometimes photographs.
Let’s see what Blackshaw, Kenneth Dean, has to say online. Our click brings up a short bio and a list of the digital materials available. In his case there is an interview transcript and a 6-page biography.
You can use your browser’s Find box to look for specific names, places, or events within the transcript. What does he say about the missions he flew? There are three entries, one of which will tell you he flew a total of 35.
The biography of Lt Col Blackshaw is an un-indexed document scan, and is therefore not digitally searchable. You’ll have to do it manually.
Where there is no View Digital Collection listed next to a name in the collection, you can still check to see what material is available. In the case of Norman Eugene Outcalt, there is an oral history on DVD. And John Henry Roberts has a interview transcription that is available, possibly as a digital file. In cases like these, again, you’ll need to contact LOC directly to see about getting reproductions.
The Library of Congress’s Manuscript Division holds the papers of several hundred prominent Americans and organizations, with extensive PDF finding aids. In some cases large numbers of the original papers are available in digital form. The collection of the Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers is a splendid example—LOC has over 51,000 images from 4,700 separate items.
Click on BrowseSeries to see the index of general Bell topics. Under Laboratory Notebooks you can view the entire contents of two volumes of the famous inventor’s personal notebooks—one from 1910, and the other covering 1891-1893.
A similar online collection is available of Abraham Lincoln’s papers (61,000 images, 10,000 transcriptions) and the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass’s papers (38,000 images). The Library’s Thomas Jefferson collection is the largest at LOC, with 83,000 images.
If you’re looking for illustrations for your book or article, the Library of Congress is a great place to start. They have digitized over 1 million images from their collections. From the main home page you can access the Prints and Photographs Online Collection (PPOC). There is an especially good selection of Civil War views (7,000). But let’s take a different tack.
Scroll down to the Prokudin-GorskiiCollection — one of the most charming holdings at the Library. This set of two thousand-some photographs was acquired by the Library in 1948.
It’s the work of Russian photographer Sergei Mikhailovich Prokudin-Gorskii, who in the early 20th century set out to document the life and people of his native land. What’s unique about these photographs is that most are in color, made with an unusual process involving three separate negatives, each exposed through a different filter (red, green, blue). When combined in projection (or digitally by the LOC) the result is a color photograph of extraordinary richness.
The photo below, of the Emir of Bukhara, is a splendid example of P-G’s work. Downloaded from the 204kb LOC color jpeg file, it has not been retouched in any way (save for cropping).
We’ve only scratched the surface of what stuff is available at the Library of Congress. Not only does the LOC have tons of downloadable stuff, but every day it’s putting more and more online. Their website is well worth bookmarking, and checking in on frequently.
Next time we’ll delve deeper into History Warehouses, with a look at smaller and local repositories.
If this post was helpful or interesting to you, please let me know. I’m always looking for ways to improve the blog.
Disclaimer: The description of web pages are accurate as of the post date. Like everything else in this digital world of ours, they can change in the blink of an eye.