A New Digital Strategy for America’s Library

The Library of Congress expands its online offerings through letters, maps, and colors

March 1, 2019

Victoria Van Hyning guides local students in transcribing letters from Library of Congress collections during the Letters to Lincoln crowdsourcing kickoff event on November 19, 2018. Photo: Shawn Miller
Victoria Van Hyning guides local students in transcribing letters from Library of Congress collections during the Letters to Lincoln crowdsourcing kickoff event on November 19, 2018. Photo: Shawn Miller

The Library of Congress (LC) holds two of the five known manuscript copies of President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address, so it’s no surprise that LC would hold an event to mark the speech’s 155th anniversary. On November 19, 2018, the library hosted talks by Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and others to discuss Lincoln’s legacy, but it also launched something new. Hayden and her staff invited attendees and livestream viewers to join its Letters to Lincoln project by helping to transcribe 28,000 scanned pages of documents written to or by Lincoln, making LC’s Abraham Lincoln Papers more accessible online and easier for researchers to find.

“What you’re doing in helping us transcribe these letters is bringing to life the letters and the thoughts of people from decades and centuries ago,” Hayden said at the event.

Letters to Lincoln is just one of the many projects launched or under development as part of LC’s new five-year digital strategy announced October 1. The initiative has three primary planks:

  • “Throw open the treasure chest,” as LC puts it, by growing the library’s digital collections and sharing them as widely as possible
  • Connect to more users by improving online access and creating opportunities for public participation
  • Invest in the future by ensuring that LC staffers have the tools and the training to protect and preserve collections as technology evolves
Kate Zwaard, director of digital strategy at LC
Kate Zwaard, director of digital strategy at LC

The digital strategy falls under Enriching the User Experience, the library’s FY2019–2023 strategic plan, which outlines such broad goals as expanding access to its collections and modernizing operations. “The strategic plan has the vision of what we’d like the library to look like five years from now,” says Kate Zwaard, LC’s director of digital strategy. “The digital strategy breaks it down into specific initiatives.”

LC created Library of Congress Labs in September 2017 to test projects that use LC’s digital collections in innovative ways, including the following.

By the People

Letters to Lincoln is one campaign within the By the People crowdsourced transcription platform. LC is also using it for efforts to transcribe the papers of American Red Cross founder and nurse Clara Barton (1821–1912); African-American civil rights pioneer Mary Church Terrell (1863–1954); disabled Civil War soldiers; and baseball player and scout Branch Rickey (1881–1965), who signed Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, breaking the Major League color barrier.

Examining these original documents offers a more immediate sense of history than a textbook can provide. “One letter in the collection is from Lincoln to his first fiancée [Mary Owens], and it’s incredible,” Zwaard says. “In his own hand, he talks about his approach to love and marriage, and it gives a real sense of who he was.”

The opportunity to work with primary-source documents will be valuable for students and educators, lifelong learners, and others with a deep curiosity, according to Meghan Ferriter, senior innovation specialist for LC’s digital initiatives. The transcriptions will also make the collections more usable.

Scanning historical documents greatly improves their access, but it also has its drawbacks. “So many resources available are currently presented at the item level,” Ferriter says. “Clara Barton’s diary is described, but there’s no differentiating metadata for individual pages or keywords.” Transcribing and tagging the documents is making them searchable for the first time.

Nineteenth-century handwriting can be difficult to decipher, and people with visual disabilities may not be able to read the originals. Once transcribed over the next year or so, Lincoln’s letters will be indexed and full-text searchable, making it easier for researchers to find specific documents.

By the People will continue after the first five pilot campaigns are completed. Ferriter says LC has begun a process to identify the next collections targeted for transcription, and it will incorporate lessons learned from the first projects in making those decisions. LC has also released Concordia, the software that powers these crowdsourced transcription projects, as open source code on GitHub. That means libraries and other organizations can use it for their own crowdsourced transcription projects at no charge (see sidebar).

Story Maps

Story Maps combine artifacts from LC’s collections, narratives written by staff experts, and geographic data on a platform created by geographic information systems developer Esri to present stories online in an immersive way. The Incunabula Story Map, for example, illustrates not only how publishing in Western Europe evolved in the 50 years after the first Gutenberg Bible was printed, but where it took place.

“Because of the geospatial data revolution in the past 20 years or so, people are much more conscious of what a visual display can do,” says John Hessler, a specialist in computational geography and geographic information scientist and one of the pioneers of the project. “Geospatial visualization is the key to displaying these things in a way that people can understand them.”

LC has developed seven Story Maps so far, but some 40 staffers have been trained to create their own, so more will be coming. No project manager or committee dictates topics. “Our goal is to get ‘hidden’ collections out there,” Hessler says, so LC curators, content specialists, and librarians are empowered to create Story Maps when they identify worthy collections that haven’t gotten the display or publicity they deserve.

Specific Story Maps will attract different audiences. The Incunabula Story Map, for instance, offers an introduction to books printed before 1500 that’s well-suited to the general public. Behind Barbed Wire, a Story Map about Japanese-American internment camp newspapers during World War II, provides links to digital copies of the original documents that are valuable for historians and other researchers. All of LC’s Story Maps also contain map data that sociologists and geographers can download.

Individual Story Maps may, however, turn out to be ephemeral. “We don’t see Story Maps as things that will be out there forever,” Hessler says. “They are more like temporary exhibits or presentations that highlight our collections.”


Jer Thorp, innovator-in-residence at LC
Jer Thorp, innovator-in-residence at LC

In September 2017, LC appointed data artist Jer Thorp as the library’s innovator-in-residence to explore the library’s digital collections and create new ways to showcase them. “He’s putting things next to one another that don’t normally go together in hopes that it might spur curiosity,” Zwaard says.

One of his suggestions was to guest host LC’s Twitter account for three hours on November 8 for something he called a #SerendipityRun. Hayden started off by tweeting a note written by civil rights activist Rosa Parks describing how she felt at the moment of her 1955 bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, and Twitter users shared documents they had discovered that connected to it in some way. Then others reposted items LC had already tweeted about and matched them with other relevant library resources.

The Library of Colors allows users to browse various LC collections visualized by colors in the titles of the work.
The Library of Colors allows users to browse various LC collections visualized by colors in the titles of the work.

Another example is Thorp’s data visualization project, the Library of Colors, which came about while he was thinking of ways to use the library’s MARC data set. He identified colors in the titles of works and used a tool developed by Laura Wrubel, a George Washington University software development librarian working on assignment with LC Labs, to visualize the palettes from various LC collections. “In large part these color palettes speak to trends in the titles themselves: the large blue region in Music, the common use of the terms black and blood in American literature,” Thorp wrote on Medium.

Thorp also hosts the Artist in the Archive podcast to relate his experiences. LC reappointed him for a second term in July, and he will soon announce a call for applications to be the next innovator-in-residence.

LC for Robots

Computers are far more efficient at analyzing data than humans. “The library wants to encourage digital scholarship through our labs site,” Zwaard says. Part of that is LC for Robots, a collection of available bulk data, MARC records, and APIs that researchers can use for computer analysis, as well as tutorials about how to use them.

Zwaard adds that identifying ways to effectively support digital scholarship, both online and onsite, is a high priority. That support may ultimately take the form of future workshops, resource guides, or an onsite digital scholarship center. LC will announce future digital endeavors on its news site or through its blog The Signal.


Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden and Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero in conversation at the American Library Association (ALA) 2018 Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans

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Carla Hayden and David S. Ferriero engage in good-natured rivalry

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