Examine an old portrait of George Washington, read a pulp crime story in a "penny dreadful" or page through medieval manuscripts at Harvard from the comfort of home.

The Digital Public Library of America, launching April 18, will open collections from libraries and museums across the country to anyone with an Internet connection — for free.

The new "library" (found online at dp.la) is essentially a Google-like search portal tying together digitized records from around the country, including that old image of the first president and those sordid century-old serials that sold for a cent. For starters, there will be more than 2 million documents, photos and audio files to peruse, plus several online exhibits, including one from Minnesota about American Indian culture. More materials will be added over time.

"If last century was about building a library in every town, this is building a library in everybody's home," said Jason Roy, director of digital library services at the University of Minnesota and coordinator of the state's contribution to the national project.

But don't ditch the local library just yet. The Digital Public Library of America won't have the latest bestsellers, partly because of continuing debates about copyrights and e-books.

"There's certainly interest in that," said Emily Gore, the library's director of content.

Instead, the library is aiming to give people a glimpse of lesser-known treasures, opening a digital door to collections large (the Smithsonian Institution) and small (Anoka County Historical Society) through a single search.

As Gore put it, "At your fingertips: libraries, archives and museums of the United States." □