I’ve been doing some research on the American presidents recently. For all presidents since Herbert Hoover and a handful of others before his term, official and unofficial presidential libraries house the vast majority of available documents. For earlier officeholders, the most complete source for presidential papers is the Library of Congress. The Library’s Manuscript Division maintains a microfilm collection of these older documents, made available to the general public through university libraries and other institutions across the country. To read the documents, you have to drive to the library, pay ridiculous prices for college parking, obtain the microfilm from the librarian, sit yourself in front of 1930s-era imaging technology, and glare.
Just because a copyright for some work has expired, it doesn’t mean you can retrieve it easily, even in this digital world. Significant portions of the presidential materials are still accessible only through disconnected, physical, photographic media, or multi-volume reference collections. I found this limitation shocking, especially since Google has been working hard at digitizing 20 million library books using machines that manage the page turning and picture taking automatically (now with some publisher permission). There must be a device that can scan through thousands of reels of film per day, convert them to digital format, and offer them in a centralized, convenient online location.
Perhaps there is, but it won’t help me this week. For now, I have to be content with hanging around college students and ignoring the strange looks aimed at the old guy—that would be me—sitting in the Microforms room. There are groups working to move many archived historical documents online for free or paid access. Here are a few that peaked my interest recently.
- The American President Project is trying to make my dream come true. Located at the University of California San Barbara, the project has made available online over 100,000 documents covering all presidents from Washington to Obama.
- The British Library is bringing its own collections to the masses through “digitisation.” Recent uploads include a nearly 600-image copy of notebooks from Leonardo da Vinci.
- Google recently press-released information about its participation in bringing high-resolution images of the Dead Sea Scrolls to a web browser near you.
[Image Credits: Microsoft Office clip art]