Wednesday, August 10, 2022

Historical books hit digital world

July 26, 2001

Students can feel like they are traveling to 19th century America by reading the books of their ancestors’ past, part of MSU’s lasted archive collections on the Web.

MSU Libraries, through the American Memory Web site at the Library of Congress, released a collection of Sunday school books from the 1800s in a digital format that is free to the public.

“The Sunday school books are really interesting in contrast to now because we’re educated to see all the shades of gray and all the sides of the argument,” said Ruth Ann Jones, the digital projects coordinator for MSU Libraries. “But in the world of Sunday school books, it’s black and white. You’re either good or evil.”

“Sunday School Books: Shaping the Values of Youth in Nineteenth-Century America,” was funded by the LC/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition. MSU Libraries were among six college groups to receive funding last spring.

The library transferred the full-text versions of 163 Sunday school books from MSU and Central Michigan University online, which can be viewed through both the American Memory Web site and the MSU Libraries Web site.

“It’s the closest thing you can get to looking at the books without having the books in front of you,” said Stephen Rachman, an MSU English professor and the director of the American Studies Program. “It’s an excellent tool.”

Rachman, who wrote historical commentaries and introductions to the book entries, said the literature represents the United States’ history.

“The books were trying to reach children and deal with the pressing issues of modern life as America was changing,” Rachman said.

The collection includes texts on missionary travels, natural history and advice on daily conduct. The texts also address issues of child labor, poverty, slavery and immigration.

“It’s interesting to see that the issues we consider urgent are rooted in the past,” said Jones, who also added the Web site could be a useful tool for researchers.

Rachman said the moral stories and advice is an interesting element of the site.

“People are fascinated by the tradition of moral stories which are familiar to us,” he said.

Rachman said the stories were used to teach children.

The books were known as “tracks” in the 1900s, which were in pamphlet form or were cheap books, Rachman said. The tracks were often religious-based and were used in prairie schools and in the South.

Dawn Martin, a manager at Archives Book Shop, 517 W. Grand River Ave., said the 19th century educational books like Readers and Spellers are top-sellers.

“People are reading them for classroom assignments or certain educators collect them,” Martin said.

Martin said it is important for people to have access to rare books, and said she supports the Web site’s mission.

“Access to information is absolutely wonderful,” she said.

To view the digital books, visit, or


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