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Nowadays, one expects major museums and institutions such as the Library of Congress (LOC) to have online catalogs and exhibitions. But it wasn’t that long ago that such an online presence was a groundbreaking proposition. This week’s Tech Time Warp goes back to Sept. 1, 1994, when the LOC held the first meeting about its “Virtual Library” project, and within the next two weeks The New York Times reported on a leaked memo about the effort.

Following the leak, the LOC officially announced its initiative, along with the $13 million in private donations it had secured to fund the effort. (This would have calmed Times readers concerned about cost; the Times article stated that a book page would cost between $2 to $6 to digitize, with pages from rare and fragile books costing more.)

What became the National Digital Library program had its roots in a five-year project called American Memory through which schools and libraries around the country received CD-ROMs containing information about primary source materials in the library’s Americana Collection. The program was successful, but the cost of producing the CD-ROMs had become prohibitive. In 1992, the LOC had dipped its toe into online content with two pilot exhibitions: “Revelations from the Russian Archives” and “1492: An Ongoing Voyage.” As James Billington, the 13th Librarian of Congress, said in his inauguration speech, the goal was to make the library’s collections “even more broadly available to ever-wider circles of our multiethnic society … using new technologies to share the substantive content, and not merely the descriptive catalog, of the nation’s memory.”

By 2004, more than 9 million items were available online, and today’s online visitors can explore items ranging from panoramic maps to baseball cards. You can also become a virtual volunteer to help transcribe and increase access to digital collections.

Did you enjoy this installation of SmarterMSP’s Tech Time Warp? Check out others here.

Photo:  / Shutterstock


Posted by Kate Johanns

Kate Johanns is a communications professional and freelance writer with more than 13 years of experience in publishing and marketing.

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