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Mission and History


American Memory provides free and open access through the Internet to written and spoken words, sound recordings, still and moving images, prints, maps, and sheet music that document the American experience. It is a digital record of American history and creativity. These materials, from the collections of the Library of Congress and other institutions, chronicle historical events, people, places, and ideas that continue to shape America, serving the public as a resource for education and lifelong learning.


The seed that grew into the American Memory historical collections was planted in a pilot program that ran from 1990 through 1994. The pilot experimented with digitizing some of the Library of Congress’s unparalleled collections of historical documents, moving images, sound recordings, and print and photographic media -- the "nation’s memory." It identified audiences for digital collections, established technical procedures, wrestled with intellectual-property issues, explored options for distribution such as CD-ROM, and began institutionalizing a digital effort at the Library. Forty-four schools and libraries across the country received CD-ROMs with these materials as part of the pilot. As the American Memory pilot drew to a close, the Library surveyed the 44 selected schools and libraries that had participated. The response was enthusiastic, especially from teachers and students in middle and high schools who wanted more digitized resources. But distributing these materials in CD-ROM format was both inefficient and prohibitively expensive.

Fortunately, by 1994, the Internet and its World Wide Web were beginning to transform the presentation and communication of human knowledge. The Library took advantage of the opportunity and, on Oct. 13, 1994, announced that it had received $13 million in private sector donations to establish the National Digital Library Program. That day, building on the concepts the pilot had demonstrated, the Library of Congress launched the American Memory historical collections as the flagship of the National Digital Library Program -- a pioneering systematic effort to digitize some of the foremost historical treasures in the Library and other major research archives and make them readily available on the Web to Congress, scholars, educators, students, the general public, and the global Internet community.

From the outset, the National Digital Library was truly a collaborative national endeavor. Bipartisan support from Congress for $15 million over five years and a unique public-private partnership involving entrepreneurial and philanthropic leadership led to more than $45 million in private sponsorship from 1994 through 2000.

Beginning in 1996, the Library of Congress sponsored a three-year competition with a $2 million gift from the Ameritech Corporation to enable public, research, and academic libraries, museums, historical societies, and archival institutions (with the exception of federal institutions) to digitize American history collections and make them available on the Library’s American Memory site. The competition produced 23 digital collections that complement American Memory, which now features more than 100 thematic collections.

The National Digital Library exceeded its goal of making 5 million items available online by 2000. American Memory will continue to expand online historical content as an integral component of the Library of Congress’s commitment to harnessing new technology as it fulfills its mission "to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations."