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Twitter hits Library of Congress: Would Founding Fathers tweet?

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Alex Brandon/AP/File

(Read caption) Tweet? Then-presidential candidate Barack Obama checks his wireless device March 20, 2008, before a town hall meeting in West Virginia. The Library of Congress will archive all content posted to Twitter, it announced Thursday.

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From Thomas Jefferson's library to Twitter – the US Library of Congress marches on.

Yes, the institution that in 1815 bought 6,487 of Jefferson's books to restore holdings burned in the War of 1812 announced on Thursday that it will archive every public tweet sent since March 2006.

Twitter's files have extraordinary potential to help anyone researching contemporary life, said Librarian of Congress James Billington in a statement announcing the move.

"Anyone who wants to understand how an ever-broadening public is using social media to engage in an ongoing debate regarding social and cultural issues will have need of this material," said Mr. Billington.

Hmm – by our count that sentence is about 180 characters. And it's clipped from a quote that's a whole paragraph. Billington is going to have to start tightening things up if he's going to get in the 140-character-per-message Twitter spirit.

Jefferson got $23,940 for his stacks when the Library of Congress bought them to replace material the British had torched. The books included works of history, literature, and natural philosophy in a number of languages.

Thucydides translated from Greek into English by Thomas Hobbes, Plutarch in Latin – that sort of thing.

Now these will be supplemented with, among other things, the tweets of Canadian pop star Justin Bieber. ("...Time for school. Back to learning. Haha.")

To be fair, the Library of Congress has long collected oral history and things that historians call "ephemera" as a means of tracking cultural changes. It has archived man-on-the-street interviews taken after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the terrorist attacks of 9/11, among other things.

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The tweet sent by Barack Obama after learning of his election might fit right in with such material, as will tweets from Iranian dissidents and others around the world fighting oppression.

"I think Twitter will be one of the most informative resources available on modern-day culture, including economic, social and political trends, as well as consumer behavior and social trends," said Margot Gerritsen, a Stanford professor who's working with the Library of Congress on the stewardship of digital material, in a statement.

More than 140 characters again. These people are going to have to learn to pare down.

So, just for fun, if Twitter had been established in 1776, how would US history be different? Or sound different, at least?

@TJefferson: "Working on new project: All men are created ... the same? Doesn't quite sound right. Help me out, tweeps."

@HonestAbe: "Excerpt from upcoming speech at @Gettysburg63: Gov. of peeps, by peeps, for peeps, 4ever. More here: http://honesta.be/getty1863"

@JFK: "Ask not what @USA can do for you ... ask what you can do for @USA."


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