The Library of Congress will build on its promise to be the “people’s library” by launching a four-year program to expand and diversify its collection and work with communities of color and other underrepresented groups to offer a more inclusive story of the American experience.

“Of the People: Widening the Path” continues Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden’s efforts to expand the range of partners and embrace their perspectives. The program is supported by a four-year, $15 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a record-setting investment from a private foundation.

Working with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic and other underserved communities, “Of the People” will offer fellowships, residencies and training programs to individuals — including artists, filmmakers, librarians, researchers and community activists — who want to explore the federal library’s vast collection and add their own work to its holdings.

The program will fund community documentarians, research and archive interns from historically Black colleges and universities and other minority-serving institutions, and innovators and artists who will use new technologies to explore and expand the collection.

“The major goal of the grant is to expand the ways we are welcoming people to the library,” said Kate Zwaard, head of digital strategy. “Part of the grant is shoring up the technology we use to collect American stories through digital means, and to think about how we can use technology for new ways of research and to tell new stories.”

“Of the People” attracted Mellon’s record support because it examines whose stories are told and not told and what knowledge is preserved, explained the foundation’s president, Elizabeth Alexander.

“With the clear aim of collecting and digitizing the work, it’s about the undertold stories and underserved communities,” Alexander said. “It is saying, ‘We know many things, but we don’t know everything.’ It defines expertise collaboratively.”

Calling Hayden a “woman of great vision and tremendous positive power,” Alexander said the librarian has made substantial progress in the four-plus years since she was installed as the first woman and African American to lead the national library. Mellon wants to help her make change.

“With people who we think are transformational leaders, it’s important to help them up front, when they need it,” Alexander said.

The program has three components that share the goal of identifying new and diverse perspectives. The American Folklife Center will support up to 10 individuals a year for three years with fellowships of $50,000 to work in their communities. Fellows will be given training in documentation and archiving and the ethics of undertaking this work, said Betsy Peterson, director of the center, which was created in 1976. That insider outlook, Peterson said, “provides a richness and different perspective to the information we’re capturing.”

The American Folklife Center will also fund presentations and programs in the communities where the documentarians work. The final projects will be collected by the library and shared with the communities.

A second area focused on digital projects is another critical component that will help the library think about its collection in new ways, Zwaard said. The library will award 20 grants of $50,000 to $60,000 to cultural-heritage and higher-education institutions, as well as three two-year residences of $150,000 for artists or scholars to undertake more in-depth projects.

Zwaard points to the recent “Citizen DJ” effort as a prototype. Last year, innovator in residence Brian Foo created tools that allow the public to explore a curated collection of the library’s holdings, including music, oral histories and government-produced films.

“By inviting new perspectives, we change the way we see the institution,” Zwaard said. “We are up for being surprised and delighted.”

Finally, the new initiative will expand the Archives, History, and Heritage Advanced Internship Program, which was started in 2019 with Howard University and offers paid internships to students enrolled in historically Black colleges and universities as well students from institutions serving Hispanic and Indigenous populations. The library plans up to 67 Mellon-funded internships each year.

Library officials believe engaging with these new and diverse partners will reveal hidden gems within the collection and spark ongoing discovery.

“They make something that invites us to imagine the library in a new way and that expands our idea of what is possible,” Zwaard said.