The government promises anyone with a computer will have access within a few years to millions of pages from old newspapers, a slice of American history to be viewed now only by visiting local libraries, newspaper offices or the nation's capital.
The first of what's expected to be 30 million digitized pages from papers published from 1836 through 1922 will be available in 2006.
"Anyone who's interested -- teachers, students, historians, lawyers, politicians, even newspaper reporters -- will be able to go to their computer at home or at work and at a click of a mouse get immediate, unfiltered access to the greatest source of our history," said Bruce Cole, chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities. He announced the project in a speech at the National Press Club.
Now, the only way to view the old papers is to pore through many thousands of microfilm reels at the Library of Congress, regional libraries and newspaper offices.
The Library of Congress already has put together a small sample. It has digitized issues of the U.S. military newspaper "Stars and Stripes" during World War I, February 1918 to June 1919.
Cole said the National Digital Newspaper Program is to further the founding fathers' belief that knowledge of history was a necessity for government by the people.
"American amnesia is dangerous," he said. "Democracy is not self-sustaining; it needs to be learned and passed down from generation to generation. We have to know our great founding principles, how our institutions came into being, how they work, what our rights and responsibilities are."
The National Endowment for the Humanities is working on the project with the Library of Congress, which has embarked on a broader project to preserve records of American newspapers dating from the late 1600s.
The span of the joint project is limited because type faces of printers used before 1836 are too difficult for optical scanners to read, and copyright restrictions are in force on papers published after 1923.
Cole said the new program is a cornerstone of an undertaking called "We the People," supported by President Bush and Congress to improve the teaching of American history at all levels of education.