As someone trained in European, and particularly British, history rather than American history, I have used the National Archives (NA) of the UK on a number of occasions but never the Library of Congress (LoC) which is to some extent the equivalent, inasmuch as both institutions house various collections of original documents considered significant in the nation’s history, although in other respects the type of materials collected may differ quite a bit.

Both institutions have digitized some of their holdings, but their purposes and how they make these accessible can be quite different.

The Loc states, “The mission of the Library of Congress is to make its resources available and useful to Congress and the American people and to sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations. The goal of the Library’s National Digital Library Program is to offer broad public access to a wide range of historical and cultural documents as a contribution to education and lifelong learning.

“The Library of Congress presents these documents as part of the record of the past. These primary historical documents reflect the attitudes, perspectives, and beliefs of different times. The Library of Congress does not endorse the views expressed in these collections, which may contain materials offensive to some readers.”

This is part of their general boilerplate for each online collection; I found it at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/ammem/sfbmhtml/sfbmhome.html, the collection of Samuel F. B. Morse’s papers at the LoC.

The overall statement of purpose for the Loc (at http://www.loc.gov/library/about-digital.html) states:

“The Library of Congress has made digitized versions of collection materials available online since 1994, concentrating on its most rare collections and those unavailable anywhere else. The following services are your gateway to a growing treasury of digitized photographs, manuscripts, maps, sound recordings, motion pictures, and books, as well as “born digital” materials such as Web sites. In addition, the Library maintains and promotes the use of digital library standards and provides online research and reference services.

“The Library provides one of the largest bodies of noncommercial high-quality content on the Internet. By providing these materials online, those who may never come to Washington can gain access to the treasures of the nation’s library. Such online access also helps preserve rare materials that may be too fragile to handle.”

As far as I could tell, the digitized collections at LoC are all freely available via the web, regardless of the location or identity of the potential user.

This is not the case with the digitized collections at the NA. There it is stated (http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/documentsonline/about.asp): “DocumentsOnline allows you online access to The National Archives’ collection of digitised public records, including both academic and family history sources. We are committed to providing online access to the records, and DocumentsOnline forms a key part of this strategy. DocumentsOnline can be used free of charge on public access PCs at The National Archives.”

Some of the online records can be downloaded for free from other computers, but by no means all. I happen to have used records (wills) from the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, several hundred of which I looked at in the originals at the archive some years back. To download a single will costs £3.50 (about $5.40 at today’s exchange rates). It would be impossible to carry out the research that I did without either very substantial funding or going to the archive and looking at documents the old-fashioned way.

One drawback to digital collections from either institution is that in neither case are they comprehensive. This is completely understandable – the total collections held are enormous, and the sheer time needed to digitize the documents (not to mention adding metadata and other necessary steps, or the costs invlved) is prohibitive. Nevertheless having even some of this national-historical information available in digitized format, even for a fee, is potentially a tremendous benefit.

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