American Memory is the digital collection portal for the Library of Congress. The mission of the website is to provide “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.” For the genealogist, American Memory is an opportunity to read, hear, and view life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There’s so much I love about American Memory but let me share four of my favorite collections as an introduction to what can be found.
American Memory features all kinds of maps including transportation, military, and Sanborn maps but my favorites are the panoramic views. These maps, also known as Bird’s Eye View maps, provide a unique look at familiar cities. From an elevated perspective, these maps provide a detailed look at a section of a city, include specific landmarks, services, businesses, and homes. This collection of over 1500 panoramic maps lack the scale accuracy of more familiar maps but they provide a great way to learn more about the lay of the land and what that city looked like in an earlier time.
One of the strengths of American Memory is their collection of first-hand accounts via books and correspondence that tell the story of pioneer lives.
“California as I Saw It: First-Person Narratives of California's Early Years, 1849-1900 is the Library of Congress's first digital collection building on the exceptional holdings in the Library's General Collections and Rare Book and Special Collections Division in the area of state and local history.” This collection of first person narratives date from the Gold Rush (1849) to the turn of the 20th century. While it lacks the perspective of the diverse population found in early California, the collection is a starting place for learning more about California’s rich history.
Not all American Memory collections are housed on the American Memory website. In the case of the Early Virginia Religious Petitions, a link redirects you to the Library of Virginia, Virginia Memory Legislative Petitions Digital Collection web page. Documents spanning 1776 to 1865 include wills, naturalizations, deeds, and manumissions of slaves. A valuable Tip Sheet on the homepage provides information about finding African American names.
American Memory provides researchers the opportunity to view historic images, read 19th century texts, listen to interviews and watch very early films. Those films help us better visualize life generations ago. The Life of a City: Early Films of New York documents immigrants arrival at Ellis Island, families shopping for fish at an outdoor market, and everyday life along 23rd street in New York City (watch until the end for an incident reminiscent of a much later Marilyn Monroe movie). Make sure to click on the Articles and Essays link at the top of the collection to read more about New York and early film making. Other films found on American Memory include America at Work, America at Leisure: Motion Pictures from 1894 to 1915 and Inside an American Factory: Films of the Westinghouse Works, 1904.
Genealogy is about telling the stories of our ancestor’s lives and what better way to do that than experiencing materials created during their lifetime? Use American Memory to read and view materials from generations past to better understand your family’s history. To learn more about American Memory make sure to watch Shannon Combs Bennett’s webinar The American Memory Collection at the Library of Congress.