Everything you ever wanted;Briefing;International;New technology

16th April 1999 at 01:00
United States

No one under the age of 18 is allowed into the home of America's most cherished documents, the Library of Congress.

But now its vast collection is being made available online to children in all American schools.

The project is part of the US Digital Library Initiative to bring electronic versions of resources held by federal agencies, institutions and museums to classrooms.

Its goal is "an America where every child can stretch a hand across a keyboard and reach every book ever written, every painting ever painted, every symphony ever composed", President Clinton said in January when he asked Congress for $30 million (pound;19m) to accelerate the project.

The cash will allow the Smithsonian Institution and the National Park Service to digitise and index such cultural documents as Ansel Adams's photographs of Yosemite National Park; Thomas Edison's laboratory notes; photographs of the Apollo 11 command module; the compass that Lewis and Clark used to explore the American West; the sound of Rose Kennedy narrating a tour of the home where John F Kennedy was born; immigration records from Ellis Island; and oral history and virtual tours of cultural and historic sites such as the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

"It's an incredible variety of material," said Bill Tally, senior research associate at the Center for Children and Technology, which has helped to co-ordinate the digitisation of materials from the Library of Congress, including turn-of-the-century postcards, diaries, papers from leaders such as president George Washington, and oral histories collected during the Great Depression.

"They have discovered as they put this stuff online that there have been a remarkable number of hits from schools."

The Digital Library Initiative originated in 1994, when the Defence Department, National Science Foundation and National Aeronautics and Space Administration awarded grants to universities to start collecting and organising information in digital form and making it available for searching and retrieval.

The challenge, Mr Tally said, is not making resources available but making them accessible. "Kids don't necessarily find documents of themselves fascinating. What students do respond to, though, is an opportunity to dig through a messy problem, where they get some freedom of choice and movement about how to research and interpret this material. Almost every single issue that occurs as a flat topic in the history book was hotly contested at the time, and you can open all of that up," he said.

The Digital Library Initiative website is at http:lcweb2.loc.gov.amhome.html

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