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Surfing Down Memory Lane

With Library of Congress project, history is a mouse away on Internet


WASHINGTON — Listen to Northern California folk music from the 1930s, funky tunes in 12 languages on instruments like the blul, cimbalom and dumbelek. Watch the earliest motion pictures, shaky black-and-white shorts produced by Thomas Edison.

Gaze at panoramic photos of a 1926 Venice Beach bathing beauty contest, the 1932 Olympic Games and the 1960 Democratic National Convention in the Coliseum, and downtown Los Angeles in 1908--long before smog wrecked the view. Find your town on a 19th century railroad map.

Or check out Branch Rickey's 1954 scouting report on high school senior Don Drysdale.

"A lot of artistry about this boy. Way above average fastball," Rickey wrote of the 18-year-old Van Nuys prodigy. "Fine pitching hand, and placement on fast and curve ball needs no coaching."

It's all just a few clicks away, courtesy of the Library of Congress ( As part of the $60-million American Memory project, 500,000 photos, illustrations, maps, documents, movies and songs--everything from George Washington's letters to a Jackie Robinson comic book--are now a computer link away.

No longer must scholars trudge to musty basement archives, bringing only pencils and paging through materials they specifically requested. Now the primary sources are on everybody's desktop, waiting to be discovered via the Internet.

You can hear the voices of history--speeches by Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge and Teddy Roosevelt. You can watch a documentary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake--filmed less than a month after the disaster. You can see the handwriting, practically feel the paper: Rickey, for example, used a blue ribbon on typing paper with an imprinted logo.

"It inspires all of us, really, to think about what we're seeing and where it fits into the bigger picture," said Susan Veccia, who works on the project.

Mary Todd Lincoln's letter to her husband, President Abraham Lincoln, during the Civil War, "was so personal you almost felt like you shouldn't be reading it," Veccia said. Noting a speech by Teddy Roosevelt's sister Corinne, she said: "The way she delivers it and rolls her Rs, you can almost picture this woman being very engaged in the politics of the day."

Partly funded by philanthropists, the site has been up and steadily growing since 1995, and is expected to contain 5 million items by 2000, when the Library of Congress celebrates its 200th birthday. It averages 10.3 million hits a month.


Although the site was originally envisioned mainly as a research tool for high-level scholarship, it has increasingly become focused on primary and secondary education. Last summer, 50 teachers spent a week in Washington developing lesson plans using the digital archive. The plans will also soon be available online.

There are 36 special collections posted, each containing a host of treasures.

"California as I Saw It" has 190 first-person narratives of the Gold Rush era. "Voices From the Dust Bowl" offers interviews and music from migrant work camps in the Central Valley in 1940 and 1941. "The American Variety Stage" has Yiddish plays and a poster advertising Houdini's 1923 lecture on "Fraud Mediums and Miracle Mongers" at Los Angeles' Hill Street Theatre. There are 165 artifacts of the women's suffrage movement, records from the Constitutional Convention and the first two Congresses, portraits of presidents and first ladies, and a 1933 palm reading of Amelia Earhart.

There are more than 200 dance manuals, dating from 1490 to 1900, and one strident anti-dance treatise, warning of the dangers of the new 1916 steps.

Among the most important for academics are the scanned-in pages of four of Walt Whitman's notebooks, which disappeared from the Library of Congress in 1942 and were returned in 1995. Among the most powerful for more casual users are thousands of interviews from the Federal Writers' Folklore Project, conducted in 24 states from 1936 to 1940.

"I found a manuscript of my grandmother in your American Memory project--my family didn't even remember giving the interview," Regina Whelchel of San Francisco wrote in one of about 500 e-mail messages received at the site each month. "It was very nice to find it!"

The site includes a "Today in History" page with multimedia lessons. Sept. 4 recounts the 1781 Mexican settlement of El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles, with a beautiful 1941 panorama of the skyline, featuring City Hall. Sept. 28 marks the date in 1542 when Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo of Portugal sailed into San Diego Bay. And April 18 commemorates the San Francisco quake.

"The resources are what the technology gives us," said Leni Donlan, former director of technology at San Francisco's Town School for Boys. "The real learning happens in the classroom, but this provides a huge pool of additional information, of moving information, of not-available-anywhere-else information. It can only be accessed through the Internet for most of us."

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