If you've ever wanted to read Sprague's Journal of Maine History, or Pioneers of Scioto County, but couldn't because they were too old, you're in luck. They're among nearly 60,000 books -- many too fragile to be safely handled -- that have been digitally scanned as part of the first-ever mass book-digitization project of the U.S. Library of Congress (LOC), the world’s largest library. You can read and download these books for free.

The project is called Digitizing American Imprints and consists of books published before 1923, because they are in the public domain in the United States after the expiration of their U.S. copyrights (which helps it avoid some of the copyright issues Google Books has had). Many of these books cover a period of Western settlement of the United States, starting in 1865, but they date as far back as 1707, covering the trial of two Presbyterian ministers in New York.

These and the other digitized books can be accessed through the Library’s catalog Web site and the Internet Archive (IA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to building and maintaining a free online digital library founded by Internet pioneer Brewster Kahle. The project was funded by a $2 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

Using overhead cameras, 1000 books can be scanned per week. In addition, the Library of Congress is producing a report on best practices for dealing with brittle books and fold-out materials that it plans to make available.

"Many of the newly digitized LOC works contain hard-to-obtain Civil War regimental histories and county, state and regional information relating to specific people, their occupations and families, and other details that are important for historians and genealogists," according to a government article about the project.