Tribune Print Share Text

Virtual access to America's past

The National Archives are going digital

Created date

February 22nd, 2011

Every year, over one million people file through the Rotunda of the National Archives Building in Washington, D.C., gazing intently at Jacob Shallus s elegant penmanship in the Constitution s opening phrase, We the People. Here the charter sits on permanent display alongside the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights in state-of-the-art encasements designed to protect their centuries-old parchment.

Ten billion pages

Although the exhibit is a premier attraction for tourists making the pilgrimage to the nation s capital, it represents only a fraction of the historic papers in the Archives collection. Since its creation in the mid 1930s, the agency has filled 44 storage facilities with a staggering ten billion pages of government documents ranging from treaties and presidential correspondence to military and civil service records. Some of the more surprising items in the collection include the check for $7.2 million used to purchase Alaska; a letter from Annie Oakley to William McKinley offering the services of 50 female sharpshooters in the Spanish American War; and a five-page letter of recommendation from Ralph Waldo Emerson endorsing Walt Whitman for a U.S. Patent Office position. All of them help tell America s story, and David Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, hopes that one day people can rummage through the stacks and learn from them with the click of a mouse. As Archivist, my primary concern is the general public, he says. We have this amazing collection of historical documents, and I want people to have access to them so that they can understand and appreciate their history. Making digital versions of our paper holdings available on the Internet is the best way to accomplish this.

History online

With this in mind, the Archives forged ahead last September and launchedDocsTeach (, an online resource for teaching American history through primary documents. On the website, teachers and students can browse digital scans of over 3,000 items from the Archives, including the Emancipation Proclamation, George Washington s draft of the Constitution, President Richard Nixon s resignation letter, even Chuck Yeager s notes on the first supersonic flight. The site organizes the materials by their respective historical eras and includes proposed lesson plans that help teachers tailor the documents to specific in-class activities. I m rather proud of the DocsTeach site, says Ferriero. The site fosters a renewed interest in history among students, and it furthers our objective to make as much of our holdings available to the public as easily as possible. Even so, there s nothing easy about providing this access. Given the sheer volume of paper, the task is both tedious and labor intensive. The process involves sorting and organizing the documents, then, one at a time, scanning them into a computer to produce a high-resolution image called a digital surrogate.

Balancing preservation and access

While researchers can still handle most documents in the Archives research rooms, Ferriero says that some of the most prized articles are only available digitally. Digitizing our collections enables us to strike the balance between preservation and access, he explains. Prior to this technology, archivists had two choices lock up the document or make it available. With digital surrogates, we can do both. Based on a quick search of the Web it appears that repositories across the country are on the same wavelength as Ferriero. The Library of Congress, for instance, has an online database of the 20,000 letters and telegrams in the Abraham Lincoln Papers. Users can search the papers by keyword, the results of which return high-resolution images of the relevant letters and typed transcriptions of their contents. Similarly, the Massachusetts Historical Society has made the letters and diaries of John and Abigail Adams available online as a searchable database, which also provides high-resolution images along with typed transcriptions. Now, with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War approaching, Ferriero notes that the Archives has turned its attention to digitizing its related collections of letters and military orders, thanks in large part to a group of volunteers called the Civil War Conservation Corps. The effort to digitize is one that will continue as long as the Archives collects and preserves the records of American government, he says. It s a big job, but we re surely moving forward.