Portal to the Past

By Nancy Hendrickson Premium

The ultimate genealogy time machine isn’t some contraption out of a sci-fi novel, but it does come from library shelves. It’s the Library of Congress’ (LOG) American Memory Web site <>.

Just a few clicks on this free site can transport you back to your ancestors’ day. American Memory brims with primary sources of US history and culture — the books your forebears read, firsthand accounts of their daily activities, their maps, their music, their clothes. Part of the LOC’s National Digital Library Program, it consists of 7 million digitized materials from 100-plus historical collections and collaborations with other American libraries.


How can you best use this resource in your research? To dig out those fascinating details that let you spend an afternoon in your ancestor’s shoes. Understand their gold fever by reading A Yankee Trader in the Gold Rush, for instance. Or pore over a period map to get a better grasp of 18th-century migration patterns. Although you probably won’t find your ancestors in this collection by name, you’ll certainly find items relating to their life and times.

Searching the system

The quickest way to check American Memory for your ancestor, hometown or area of interest is to use the global search function. Click Search from the home page, then enter your key-words in the box. If you’re searching for a phrase, such as South Carolina, be sure to pick the exact-phrase option from the pull-down menu; otherwise, the search will return any occurrence of south or Carolina. Choose the all-words filter to find works that contain both terms, but not necessarily as a phrase.

Since global searches for general subjects (think Civil War or American Indian) will return hundreds of hits, you might find what you’re looking for faster by focusing on a specific collection. Each collection has a standard keyword search, but categories for browsing vary. For example, you can peruse sheet music by subject or name index; Northern Great Plains photos by subject; and Civil War Maps by geographic location, subject and creator index or title list. (For details on American Memory’s Map Collections, see the August 2001 Family Tree Magazine.)

BASEBALL CARDS, 1887-1 914

Pinpointing collections

A combination of surfing and searching is another effective way to tap the site — that’s where the Collection Finder comes in. Like Yahoo! <> and other popular Web directories, this index sorts all of American Memory’s collections into categories you can search. It doesn’t organize content just by topic, though; you can also narrow down collections by time, place, library division and format.

The place category is handy for family history research. Suppose your ancestors were New Englanders: Just click Northeast US to turn up every collection pertaining to that region. These range from Civil War images from the New-York Historical Society to stereoscopic views of small-town life in the Mid-Atlantic region. You can then search across all of those collections, or uncheck the boxes next to collections you want to exclude. Or follow any link to search or browse that database individually.

Exploring the Broad Topics categories is a lot like browsing the stacks at a brick-and-mortar library: You head to a general subject area and see what gems you stumble upon. Try Agriculture to learn about farming ancestors. Collections there illustrate Nebraska homesteads, ranching culture in Northern Nevada, the conservation movement and rural life as documented by the Farm Security Administration. Click Social Sciences to find Edward Curtis’ American Indian photos, films of San Francisco before and after the 1906 earthquake and slave narratives from the Depression-era Federal Writer’s Project.

To hunt for specific kinds of library items, such as old periodicals or recordings of 19th-century songs, try the Collection Finder’s Original Format index. Do you love old photos? Click Photos & Prints to view all of the photography collections. These range from pictures of the American frontier to daguerreotypes. The daguerreotype collection includes portraits, street scenes (check out the 1851 photo of San Francisco), riverboats, sculptures, blacksmiths, carriages and even a cat! Photos & Prints also lists multiformat collections that include photos, sometimes of other objects such as WPA posters, vaudeville playbills and baseball cards.

Enhancing your family history


With the help of the global search and Collection Finder, lucky researchers could find their family, ancestral home, village or military regiment represented in one of the collections. But even if you don’t turn up something specific to your family, you can use American Memory as a social history tool — you have excellent odds of discovering materials that capture a specific time period, place or social event.

For example, search Westward by Sea: A Maritime Perspective on American Expansion, 1820-1890 to get a feel for your seafaring ancestors’ experiences. This database consists of Mystic Seaport’s archival collection of logbooks, diaries, letters and narratives of voyages and travels. Here you’ll find material related to the settlement of California, Alaska, Hawaii, Texas and the Pacific Northwest, as well as the whaling and shipping industries. A typical item is a digitized version of the book Narrative of a Voyage to the Northwest Coast of America in the Years 1811, 1812, 1813, and 1814.

Have Southern roots? Don’t miss First Person Narratives of the American South, 1860-1920. You’ll find diaries, memoirs, autobiographies, travel accounts and ex-slave narratives. The collection is notable for including selections from women, common laborers and Native Americans. Or if your family had pioneers, comb through Pioneering the Upper Midwest, a collection that contains first-person accounts and local histories of Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

Every American Memory collection provides background on its contents and details on any rights restrictions. Many older items are no longer protected by copyright, so you’re free to use them in genealogy reports or books. (In general, works published before 1923 and those created by government agencies are in the public domain; see the February 2001 Family Tree Magazine or <> for a discussion of copyright issues.) That includes the collection of Matthew Brady’s famous Civil War photographs. These early pictures capture individual soldiers, towns, bridges and battles. Do you wonder what daily life was like for an infantryman? A search of infantry turned up 50 photos. Was your Civil War soldier wounded? Search on surgeon to get a look at the men who might have operated on him. Images such as these add a touch of real life to your genealogy records.

That sense of real life is powerful enough to get any family historian hooked on this site. So surf on over when you have a few hours to spare. You’re sure to find a treasure or two to add to your own American memories.
From the August 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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