Over the past few decades, various technological advances have allowed for significant expansion within the digital world in terms of both scope and accessibility. Today, a few clicks of a mouse or swipes on a touchscreen offer users access to an abundance of digital content ranging from the intellectual to the bizarre. In academia, the innovations brought about through this rising “Digital Age” continue to transform the research process as we know it with the introduction of new tools, methodologies, and platforms. The advent of the online database, for example, revolutionized the traditional research process through storing and making widely available countless resources in various formats. This increased accessibility of resource materials allows database users to locate in a matter of minutes information that traditionally required several days’ worth of planning (if not longer) a trip to an archive or institution. Online databases additionally provide resource access to countless users of varying backgrounds and levels of academic experience, colossally widening the scope of research to reach multiple levels of society.
Today, numerous cultural institutions across the world curate their own online research databases. One of the largest and most visited of these database sites is the Digital Collections and Services page hosted by the Library of Congress:
Created in 1994, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers users access 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.”
These materials are categorized into eight “featured collections,” each covering a specific medium (such as the Chronicling America historic newspaper database) and/or research topic (like the Veterans History Project), allowing database users to easily navigate their research efforts within the appropriate collection. Hunting for relevant research sources becomes an increasingly simple task with the subdivision of several collections into specific categories and the ability to use a search tool to locate specific materials, as seen with the American Memory collection page:
Additionally, the Library of Congress Digital Collections database offers the opportunity for users to increase their knowledge on the cultural significance of digital preservation through the inclusion of a page providing links providing further information regarding the preservation process and other online collection projects:
Unlike other leading research databases, such as JSTOR and EBSCO, which offer access to their materials only through paid membership or use through an academic institution, the Library of Congress Digital Collections site allows all members of the public to peruse the site, free of charge. This high level of accessibility, coupled with the site’s easy-to-navigate format and educational features, makes the Library of Congress Digital Collections database an ideal starting point to gather materials for use in the research process.
While undoubtedly a substantial tool of research, the Library of Congress Digital Collections system is not without limitations. This is most clearly seen in regards to the collection’s overall size, which – while admittedly plentiful – does not completely encompass the Library of Congress’ holdings in their entirety. As a result, a planned visit to the physical facility is often still a necessity, particularly for projects focusing on slightly more historically obscure topics.
That being said, the database is still an ongoing project with newly-digitzed materials regularly added to it. As such, the database’s scope continues to expand, with the hopes that eventually the vast majority of the Library of Congress’ archival holdings will be available online. Until that point, and even after, the Digital Collections and Services serves as a commendable, easy-to-use tool of research for historians at any level, both on its own and as a supplement to a more in-depth visit to the Library of Congress’ archival research facility itself.