Learning Resources

Library of Congress Finishes Digitizing of Presidential Collections

The world's largest library, the Library of Congress, has finished digitization of the collections of papers from 23 early presidents, from George Washington to Calvin Coolidge. The work has taken nearly two decades of effort, and the results -- 3.3 million images -- are openly available online. Along with images showing the original documents, the collection also provides text versions of the contents as well as descriptive information to provide context.

The collection for Abraham Lincoln consists of 20,200 items, including his first and second inaugural addresses and a preliminary draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. For George Washington, there are 77,000 items, mostly diaries, financial and military records and letters. Thomas Jefferson left behind 25,000 items, primarily correspondence but also drafts of the Declaration of Independence.

The various items were acquired, according to the Library, through a combination of donation and purchase. In 1957, Congress passed a law directing the Library to "arrange, index and microfilm the papers," a project that was completed in 1976. With the advent of digitization, presidential papers became a ripe candidate for that too.

Library of Congress Finishes Digitizing of Presidential Collections

"The writings and records of America's presidents are an invaluable source of information on world events, and many of these collections are the primary sources for books and films that teach us about our nation's history," said Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, in a statement "We are proud to make these presidential papers available free of charge to even more researchers, students and curious visitors online."

"Arguably, no other body of material in the Manuscript Division is of greater significance for the study of American history than the presidential collections," added Janice Ruth, who runs the Division at the Library. "They cover the entire sweep of American history from the nation's founding through the first decade after World War I, including periods of prosperity and depression, war and peace, unity of purpose and political and civil strife."

The collections of items for presidents who followed Coolidge, from Howard Hoover onward, are maintained in presidential libraries, which are administered by the National Archives and Records Administration. Some are held elsewhere; for instance, the papers of John Adams and John Quincy Adams are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society, much of which has also been digitized.

Links to each collection are available in a Library of Congress press release.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning. She can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @schaffhauser.