Artwork depicting bridge over river with boats (© Compton & Co./Library of Congress)
A topographical survey of St. Louis drawn in 1875. (© Compton & Co./Library of Congress)

The Library of Congress’ digital collections are stocked with billions of items.

By preserving digitized information on a variety of subjects, the library is protecting important glimpses of history. The materials include papers from 23 American presidents (including Thomas Jefferson’s rough draft of the Declaration of Independence), man-on-the-street interviews after the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, dialect recordings of North American English and baseball cards from 1887 to 1914.

ShareAmerica asked Kate Zwaard, director of digital strategy, and Trevor Owens, head of digital content management, to describe a few items they find interesting.

  • The Occupational Folklife Project documents American workers during economic and social transition. To date, fieldworkers across the United States have recorded some 900 interviews with workers. In one 2017 interview, Brooklyn electrician Kim Spicer talks of how her 5-year-old daughter wants to gain hands-on skills. “I show her everything that I do, and she’s pretty handy too,” Spicer says. “She wants to get in there and do everything. There’s certain things I’ll do with her and certain things I won’t. Anything that’s a power tool, unless it’s a drill, I’ll do that around her. But a bandsaw, saws or any of the articulating blades or anything that spins around and chops through anything, no.”
Three men working with printing press (Library of Congress)
Workers print out the Black-owned Richmond Planet newspaper from the Virginia-based paper’s printing press room. This photo was taken around 1899. (Library of Congress)
  • The Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps collection shows hand-drawn maps that show how neighborhoods change. “They show where churches were and where the neighborhood butcher shop was and what the name of it was,” Zwaard said. “You can use these to see how a block has changed, see how a neighborhood has changed through historical events and … demographic shifts.”
  • The Web Cultures Web Archive contains websites that document emerging Internet trends. One of them is Know Your Meme, which Owens describes as “an encyclopedia of memes.” One part of the site explains the origin of popular memes and how they went viral. For instance, it explains “Grumpy Cat,” a feline with a “disapproving face” that rose to fame in 2012 when someone uploaded her picture to Reddit. Internet users began to photoshop derivatives of the picture, many of which captioned the image with statements from the cat’s point of view.
  • Before the Internet, people relied on paper phone books for phone numbers or addresses. The library is collecting the digitized phone books and has collections from 14 states, plus the District of Columbia and the city of Chicago.
Page from telephone book showing various advertisements (Library of Congress)
Advertisements from the Campbell, California, phone book in February 1962. (Library of Congress)

Some date back 80 years and help people understand local histories. “Different cities, different organizations made phone books available in different ways at different points in time,” Owens said. The collection shows, for instance, how a city like Los Angeles might have been broken up into smaller neighborhoods based on what telephone books were published over time.

The free digital collection is available online to people all over the world.