For an institution dedicated to preserving the past, it's remarkable how forward-looking the U.S. Library of Congress proves to be. Nowhere is this more evident than in its vast store of Americana gathered under the umbrella name of “American Memory.” It's true that the collections look back rather than forward, but the fact that they occupy such a large portion of the Library's Web site, and offer such a wealth of interactive, multimedia links, demonstrates the value the Library places on the Internet as a 21st-century conduit for connecting Americans to their rich and vivid heritage.
We're talking access to virtual volumes of sound clips, turn-of-the-century motion pictures by Thomas Edison and others, hand-written manuscripts, song sheets, early architectural renderings, 18th-century Continental Congress documents, American Revolution maps and charts, the papers of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Abraham Lincoln, poet Walt Whitman's notebooks, 19th-century advertising, Civil War treasures, and Daguerreotype photographs.
There's also film of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, early baseball cards, World War I clips by politicians of the day, women's suffrage photos and prints, Depression-era memorabilia, voices from the Dust Bowl, and, for you Western frontiersmen out there, “Buckaroos in Paradise - Ranching Culture in Northern Nevada, 1945-1982.”
Where to begin? Try clicking on “American Variety Stage: Vaudeville and Popular Entertainment 1870-1920.” Here's where you can call up any of 61 silent motion pictures, many of them “paper-print” Edison films representing the earliest surviving motion pictures. They depict late 1890s and early 1900s animal acts, burlesque dances, comic monologues, dramatic excerpts, and novelty performances featuring Arabian rifle twirlers, boxing sisters, acrobats, contortionists, a bag-punching dog, a “trapeze disrobing act,” and Jumbo the trained elephant. The only thing missing is Ed Sullivan introducing these “really big shews.”
Though the American Variety Stage restricts itself almost exclusively to the entertainment culture of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there also happens to be a viewable facsimile reproduction of a rare 15th-century source for the “bassedanse,” a Burgundian court dance, with notations in German, French, and English.
Needless to say, the quality of many of the films, sound clips, and documents leaves much to be desired. Still, it's as close to hands-on, eyes-on, ears-on history as you're ever likely to encounter from the comfort of your computer chair.
Reverse phone directory
Google.com, which is fast becoming the most innovative search engine on the Web, turns out to have yet another service that you may decide you can't live without. It's a reverse telephone directory for all those phone numbers scribbled on cocktail napkins and the inside of matchbook covers with no notation about who they belong to. At the main site, type in the number, and presto! Up comes the name. If only life were always that simple.
Atomic scare revisited
A year or so ago, we wrote about Conelrad.com, a Web site that pokes tongue-in-cheek fun at the paranoia of the 1950s. Conelrad was a nationwide emergency broadcast station meant to warn citizens about an atomic attack from our mortal enemy, the Soviet Union. The whole era seemed beset by fear and overreaction. As we suggested when we first wrote about the Conelrad site, that paranoia seemed downright silly, what with its melodramatic warnings about nuclear invasion and the campy movies in their wake that played upon the national unease - movies like Panic in Year Zero and The Day the Earth Stood Still, along with songs like “Brush the Dust from That Old Bible” and “Tic, Tic, Tic,” sung by no less an all-American girl than Doris Day.
Suddenly in these anthrax-ridden days, nothing seems silly, naive, or quaint anymore. The idea of 1950s schoolchildren finding protection from the atomic bomb by crouching under their desks never did make much sense, but the fear was certainly real. It took the barbaric attacks of Sept. 11 to take the irony out of the humor spurred by Conelrad, air raid shelters, and Civil Defense horns warning U.S. citizens to dive for cover. Those old fears seem to have surfaced again with a vengeance.
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