Everyone knows the best possession to ever have is a library card — it will get you access to lots of free stuff, from today’s bestsellers and yesterday’s hidden gems to streaming movies to seeds to neckties. Sometimes one card can get you into a number of different libraries in your area, more than tripling the possibilities when it comes to entertainment, education, and all kinds of things in between. Living ain’t hard with your library card, and all that jazz.
We talk all the time at Book Riot about the things you can literally check out from your library. But what about the things you can check out at your library (or more, on your library’s website and at that of countless others across the world)? I don’t mean events like story times and author talks. I’m thinking more about the special pieces of the place or region where the library is, or a person or group of people whose story needs to be told. I’ve come across many in my online wanderings (including my research into how libraries celebrate Black History Month). What wonders can you discover through the archives that have been preserved and offered free to view by anyone in the world, from public libraries, university libraries, and state and national libraries all over?
Let’s find out, shall we? Here are nine very cool and fantastic collections you can wander through to discover more about history, culture, people, and places.
The Harvard University Library has several digital collections you can wander through, but this is one that might be of the broadest interest to the lay historian. They even call them the “Curiosity Collections” because they’re there to satiate your curiosity — to answer questions you might not have even known you had.
The British Library has a collection of over 90,000 audio recordings. Some of them are the familiar musical performances and oral histories, but you can also listen to like…accents, and vehicle sounds, and just all the weird things you’d expect from an archives called “sounds online.”
The New York Public Library has countless Digital Collections. NYPL serves the greater New York area, yes, but it is also one of the oldest and most thorough public research institutions in the country. They have countless archives and research collections, and they have been working forever to digitize and preserve that material. So how cool is it that as a citizen of Beyonce’s internet, you can just wander in and type in a keyword? The Schomburg Center, in particular, is one of the oldest and most widely renowned spaces to go for African American history in particular, and their digital collections continue to grow.
San Francisco Public Library has several interesting collections, but this one has thousands of photographs of San Francisco from the 1850s forward. I’ve always been interested in the history of San Francisco (thanks Grandma slash Clark Gable), so it’s really interesting to see the history of a city that’s gone through so many iterations thanks to Westward Expansion, earthquakes, and gentrification.
A collection of interviews conducted for the PBS Eyes on the Prize documentary, this is actually the whole thing. You can go through individual names and watch their interviews, complete with transcripts, and dig around a little deeper. I am definitely including this one because my first library job as a student assistant included cleaning up the metadata and text for the interview transcripts. It was very cool!
For most people who aren’t from the area, Washington, D.C., is the seat of political power and a collection of old buildings and memorials. But what about the people who’ve lived there for centuries? DigDC is a great archives of smaller collections, many of them focused on microregions within the city or certain populations, both in the past and the present. Learn more about the real DC by exploring the worlds of its regular inhabitants, not the four-year visitors.
The Bibliotheca Alexandrina — well, the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina — is a research institution, cultural center, and historic site that aims to offer the region and the world the same kind of experience the original Library of Alexandria did to the scholars of that world. This particular digital collection is great for learning about the Suez Canal, from its inception to its building and its importance to regional and international trade. It’s also great for working on your Arabic; the default language for the BA’s website and all of their resources is not English, which is pretty cool.
If your new favorite TikTok account is that guy who makes classic recipes, this is definitely the place for you. Milwaukee Public Library has a digitized collection of 20 years’ worth of recipes clipped by MPL librarians between the 1960s and the 1980s. Whether you’re interested in it for a lark or actually curious about what kind of midcentury midwestern recipes you can bring back, it’s definitely a fun collection to explore!
This is one of several collections from the Los Angeles Public Library, in this case also in partnership with the Huntington Library, Art Museum, and Botanic Gardens and the Library Foundation of Los Angeles. You can see archival photos and art, get first hand accounts, and explore the past and present of one of the most historic Chinatowns in the U.S.
This is just the tip of the iceberg — you can always start at your own public or university library to see what types of historically significant archives and collections they have available for anyone with an internet collection. And hey, I didn’t even mention America’s Library, the Library of Congress, or America’s Attic, the National Archives. You definitely want to go exploring, no matter where you’re from or what you’re looking for.