The Newberry Provides Digital Access to Over 200,000 Images Documenting History of Early America and U.S. Westward Expansion

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For decades, the Newberry has been a physical destination for the study of early America and the westward expansion of the United States. And it's increasingly becoming a digital destination as well.

Now anyone with an Internet connection can access over 200,000 high-resolution images from a range of primary sources—maps, manuscripts, books, pamphlets, photographs, and artwork—documenting Europeans' evolving conception of the Americas, early contact between colonial forces and Indigenous peoples, the expanding boundaries of the United States, and the imaginary construction of "the West."

These images come from the Edward E. Ayer Collection, one of the strongest collections regarding American Indian history and culture in the world; and the Everett D. Graff Collection, a substantial aggregation of Western Americana that ranks among the most extensive in the country.

Together, the two collections allow users to explore the complex history of America from a variety of perspectives: colonizers, missionaries, government officials, immigrant families living on the American frontier, Cheyenne warrior-artists resisting U.S. expansion, dime novelists weaving stories about Jesse James and Billy the Kid, and Indigenous leaders grappling with questions of identity, tradition, and political expediency.

With access to the materials these people created, scholars, teachers, and students are able to go beyond the myths so widely transmitted through popular culture, getting instead to the heart of how different historical moments were really experienced.

"Mythic images of the West have often obscured the actual history of western North America," scholar Ned Blackhawk has written. "For students and scholars interested in examining American Indian and western history, the Everett D. Graff Collection is an archival jewel…[containing] first-hand insights into the complex processes of western expansion."

Handwritten items from the Ayer and Graff collections are also accessible through Transcribing Modern Manuscripts, a crowdsourced transcription platform where users can help improve the historical record by deciphering letters and diaries from the Newberry’s archives.

The availability of the Ayer and Graff collections online coincides with a new open access policy recently implemented at the Newberry. Under the policy, users can share and re-use images derived from the library's collection for any purpose without having to pay licensing or permissions fees to the Newberry. There are currently over 1.7 million Newberry digital images freely accessible online.

[The images available in the Ayer Digital Collection were reviewed either by an internal team of Newberry staff (including curators, archivists, and staff from the library's D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies) or by our staff in collaboration with an external group of scholars of American Indian history.]