Library puts history online

The Library of Congress' National Digital Library last week received a $3.5 million donation from the AT&T Foundation to put two historical collections online.

AT&T's gift, which is the largest corporate donation to the NDL program, will support the digitization of documents belonging to Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel R.B. Morse.

The electronic collections will include Bell's 1876 sketch of the first telephone and Morse's first telegraphic message 153 years ago. They also will include personal papers, journals and notebooks. The materials will be added to the more than 40 collections already available from American Memory, a project of the NDL program that can be accessed at memory.loc.gov.

About 1,400 items from the Bell collection already are online.

"We believe that the National Digital Library is an initiative both Alexander Graham Bell and Samuel Morse would applaud, given their interest in technology to facilitate the exchange of information across great distances,'' said Librarian of Congress James Billington. "AT&T's generous gift will help the library continue the crucial, yet expensive, task of placing its collections online.''

Edwin S. Grosvenor, Bell's great-grandson, said his great-grandfather would be pleased. Digitizing Bell's collection will give exposure to inventions that have gone nearly unnoticed, Grosvenor said.

For example, Bell invented a primitive fax machine. "The fax technology had been there,'' Grosvenor said. "No one commercialized it.''

Also, Grosvenor said Bell invented 100 science experiments for parents to do with their children. Grosvenor said his father, Melville Bell Grosvenor, did not enjoy science and thus inspired Bell to develop the experiments. "Bell believed that learning was about discovery,'' Grosvenor said. Thanks to the NDL program, more people can discover work by Bell and Morse, including projects that are not well-known. "The program will help students seek answers to the hows and whys about things,'' Grosvenor said. "I can do research out of my basement instead of fighting the traffic and coming all the way down here.''

The AT&T grant completes the library's effort to raise $45 million in private money for the NDL program. Congress has committed $15 million in appropriations to the program, for a $60 million total over five years, Billington said.

Timothy McClinnon, executive director of the AT&T Foundation, said the company initially decided to commit $1 million but added $2.5 million to help the library reach its fund-raising goal.

"[The NDL program] is very much in keeping with our business,'' McClinnon said. "Bell and Morse are very close to AT&T's heart.''

Billington said the library's goal is to digitize 5 million items by 2000, the library's bicentennial. About 1.5 million items are online, he said.

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