American History: Libraries Light the Way
By Michal Strutin
April 8, 2022

It’s National Library Week, and I’m a librarian. Considering what’s going on in the world and the fact that my father and his family came here from Ukraine, I am happy to be an American. America is far from perfect, historically and now. Still, I was moved to create a library links page that explores American history. Perhaps these links will help those of you writing in one of the time periods covered. Some links may simply pique your interest.

Like the national parks movement, the public library movement began in the United States. The first free public library in the world was founded on April 9, 1833, in Peterborough, New Hampshire. No surprise that Library Week and Peterborough’s library dates match! 

The public library movement really took off thanks to Andrew Carnegie, who credited libraries with helping him pull himself up by his bootstraps to become a millionaire. Between 1883 and 1929, 1,689 Carnegie libraries were built in the U.S., including half of our public libraries. Today 54 percent of Americans are registered at a public library.

There’s no room to be comprehensive, so I chose obvious periods for the digital libraries below. Many focus on problem periods: American Revolution, Civil War, etc. I could not find a period called “All’s Well” or “Just Cruisin’.”

American Revolution

Signing of the Declaration of Independence

The Library of Congress’s American Revolution: a Resource Guide has huge, outstanding collection of digital collections, from most American periods, in many forms: letters by Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, and others, photos, maps… Another tab offers American Notes: Travels in America, 1750 to 1920 – 253 published narratives by Americans and foreign visitors. External Websites include spy letters, military resources, timelines, and more.

The American Revolution Institute Library’s collection includes maps, prints and engravings, manuscripts, photographs, newspapers, and rare books on such topics as military art. A cornucopia of primary sources.  

Western Expansion:

Junction of Colorado and Gila Rivers

Explore more than 3,700 digitized images from the Newberry Library’s renowned Everett D. Graff  Collection of Western Americana: narratives from explorers, pioneers, and prospectors; overland travel; RR development; the California Gold Rush; Native American history and culture. Search or browse the collection. 

The Digital Public Library of America’s Source Sets include the California Gold Rush, African-American Migration to the Great Plains as well as many other topics in American History. Each has an overview with a modest collection of captioned photos, letters, maps, broadsides, even song lyrics.  

 Civil War

The Library of Congress has a huge number of Civil War digital collections, from photographs to letters and papers of the famous and the somewhat obscure. The simply titled “Civil War” collection has photographs, prints and drawings…and Maps.

Curated by the University of Houston, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and others, Digital History covers the Civil War with an overview, chronology of events, music, and more. The tabs on the side lead to 20 periods in American history.

The Gilded Age

Vanderbilt mansions, NYC

Using the resources of many libraries, Serena Covkin curated The Gilded Age and the Progressive Era, a robust site revealing economic growth, expansion, industrialization, vast fortunes and equally vast inequities. A fine introduction is followed by subsections with plenty of links: everyday life, politics, inventors and technology, industrialists, immigration, and more.


This Library of Congress World War I guide has more than a dozen subsections: posters, maps showing military campaigns, life histories written for the Federal Writer’s Project by Nelson Algren, Ralph Ellison and others, Associated Press dispatches…a full picture.

Great Depression & the New Deal

The Digital Public Library of America has put together a well-designed, well-written exhibition on America’s Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal. Subsections include What Happened? How It Affected the Nation; President Franklin Delano Roosevelt – a New Approach to Governing America; Relief Programs, including the Civilian Conservation Core; Relief and Recovery Workers; and the New Deal’s Legacy: Utilities, Transportation, National Parks.


The Library of Congress WWII collections include Ansel Adam’s photos at Manzanar, military maps, man-on-the-street interviews after Pearl Harbor, WPA posters…a lot of great WWII-era Americana.  

The American Battle Monuments Commission’s WWII Timeline —  what an interactive way to see each year of the war plus pre- and post-war period. Click a timeline photo and it expands to show you a summary of what the image displays plus the photo and map.

Civil Rights Digital Library

Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Civil Right Digital Library partners librarians, archivists, educators, academic publishers, and broadcasters. You can browse events, place, people, and more, concluding with an A-Z list of quality collections, hundreds of them. Events, for example: click 1955 to find information links to Emmett Till’s murder and the Montgomery bus boycott.


Vietnam War

Vietnam: Search for the Truth From the PBS Newsroom’s Journalism in Action, this interactive site presents an overview, the Pentagon Papers, journalists, the public’s changing views on the war and asks the reader questions. Answer or not, they stimulate your views of this contentious war.   

The Sixties and Beyond: you’re on your own.

If anyone can suggest a high-quality, comprehensive site for Native American history since ~1776, please mention it in the comments.

Michal Strutin
Written by Michal Strutin

Judging Noa: a Fight for Women’s Rights in the Turmoil of the Exodus is Michal Strutin’s debut novel. She is now working on a mystery series set in the Late Renaissance. Michal’s award-winning nonfiction focuses on natural and cultural history and travel. Her eight nonfiction books include Places of Grace: the Natural Landscapes of the American Midwest with photographer Gary Irving; Discovering Natural Israel, a high-spirited discovery of flora, fauna, and people; Florida State Parks: a Complete Recreation Guide; and History Hikes of the Smokies.

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