By JOHN VAN OUDENAREN
A new Web site created by the Library of Congress under a special congressional appropriation chronicles the exploration, settlement and development of the American West, Russia's parallel experience in exploring and settling Siberia and the Russian Far East, and the meeting of the Russian and American frontiers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. The site is the pilot phase of a multiyear project that will result in the digitization of thousands of items from the Library's own collections as well as the acquisition from Russian libraries and archives of digital versions of materials currently not available in the United States.
Speaking in November to an audience of Russian scholars, librarians and archivists gathered at Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, Dr. Billington observed that the explosive growth of the Internet in the United States and Russia had not been accompanied by the development of enough cost-free, high-quality content that could be used by schools and libraries. "Too much of what exists in both our countries is purely commercial or of low quality. With 'Meeting of Frontiers,' we are taking a cooperative step to create positive content that will be of great benefit, especially to our teachers and young people, and that will help to strengthen the ties between Russians and Americans by focusing on what is common in our histories."
"Meeting of Frontiers," available at frontiers.loc.gov, is the Library's first major digital project involving international material and extensive cooperation with foreign institutions to obtain materials for the Library's collections in digital form. It is also the first component of an international digital library that will build upon the Library's National Digital Library Program.
The project grew out of discussions between Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) and Dr. Billington about the possibilities for using the Internet to expand access to historical materials and to build links between Americans -- especially students and young people -- and their counterparts in other countries. Sen. Stevens was particularly interested in using the Internet to strengthen ties between Alaska and its Russian neighbors and to highlight the many commonalities in Russian and American frontier histories.
The pilot site includes more than 2,500 items totaling some 70,000 images from the Library's rare book, manuscript, map, film and sound recording collections. These items tell the story of the explorers, fur traders, missionaries, exiles, gold miners and adventurers that peopled both frontiers and their interactions with the native peoples of Siberia and the American West. The site is bilingual, in English and Russian, and is intended for the general public and for use in U.S. and Russian schools and libraries. Scholars also will benefit from the mass of primary material included, much of which has never been published or is extremely rare.
The pilot site was developed in 1999 at the Library of Congress by a team of Library staff and American and Russian consultants. It includes a collection of photographs from Alaska in the 1910s by Frank. G. Carpenter, the John C. Grabill Collection of photographs of 1880s frontier life in Colorado, South Dakota and Wyoming, and several hundred photographs documenting the Siberian exile system taken by the American explorer George Kennan in 1885. Manuscripts include the Yudin Collection of papers from the Russian-American Company (1786-1830), selections from the archive of the Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska and logs, letters and reports by Bering, Chirikov and other early Russian explorers. Maps in "Meeting of Frontiers" document the growth of geographic knowledge about the American West, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, beginning with 16th century maps that show Asia connected to North America and culminating in the detailed hydrographic maps prepared by naval officers in the early 19th century.
Other noteworthy items in the pilot site include films of the Russo-Japanese war made by Thomas Edison in 1905, the recording of a song, sung in Russian in 1954 by a descendant of the early Russian settlers and, courtesy of the National Archives, the log of George Washington De Long, the commander of the U.S.S. Jeannette, an Arctic exploring vessel that was crushed in the ice north of the Lena River delta in 1879.
The next stage of the project, scheduled to begin early this year, will involve adding to "Meeting of Frontiers" collections from libraries and archives in Alaska and throughout Russia.
The Elmer E. Rasmuson Library of the University of Alaska at Fairbanks will contribute digital versions of 200 rare maps and 30 rare books relating to the early exploration and settlement of Alaska and the northwestern Pacific. The Library of Congress will loan digital scanning equipment to the Russian State Library in Moscow and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg to create digital images for inclusion in "Meeting of Frontiers." Both institutions will select the images from their vast collections relating to Siberia and the Russian Far East.
To acquire material from libraries and archives elsewhere in Russia, the Library will work with the Open Society Institute (OSI) of Russia. Funded by American philanthropist George Soros, OSI has established and supports a network of 33 Internet centers throughout the Russian Federation. The Library will work with OSI and scholars and curators from Tomsk, Tobolsk, Khabarovsk, Yakutsk, Vladivostok and other cities in Siberia and the Far East to identify especially interesting collections relevant to the new Web site and will digitize these materials at the OSI regional centers. The Institute of World History in Moscow and Institute of History of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Novosibirsk will provide scholarly expertise to the project.
Russian contributions to the project are being coordinated by a Russian advisory committee that met for the first time in Moscow in November 1999. OSI, which has pledged to make a substantial contribution to the realization of the project, hosted the meeting, which was co-chaired by Dr. Billington and Ekaterina Genieva, president of OSI-Russia. Rep. Charles Taylor (R-N.C.) attended the meeting as an observer. Members of the committee include Viktor V. Fedorov, director of the Russian State Library; Vladimir Zaitsev, director of the National Library of Russia; leading scholars; and representatives of government ministries. This writer, who is the Library of Congress project director, and Michael Neubert, the project's coordinator for liaison with Russian institutions, also attended the meeting, which featured a demonstration of the pilot site for the Russian partner institutions.
James Collins, U.S. ambassador to the Russian Federation, addressed the opening session of the meeting and expressed his support for the project. At the conclusion of the meeting, Dr. Billington signed agreements with Mr. Fedorov and Mr. Zaitsev regarding the participation of their institutions in the project. Rep. Taylor and Dr. Billington also viewed some of the items that the Russian State Library plans to contribute, including early maps, color lithographs of Siberian landscapes, original watercolors by local artists and albums of photographs commissioned by the czars. The National Library in St. Petersburg will contribute similar items, as well as many rare books and maps.
The "Meeting of Frontiers" pilot site was a cooperative effort involving the Library's European Division and the National Digital Library (NDL) Program. Members of the project team included Deborah Thomas, the NDL project coordinator, and NDL staff members Kate Foster and Dominique Pickett. Thomas M. Barrett, assistant professor of history at St. Mary's College of Maryland, wrote the basic story line and made the initial selection of collections for the project. Andrei Pliguzov, Galina Vassilenko, Vera Siegel and Rimma Kazhdan were responsible for research, translation and checking the Russian texts. Numerous other staff members from the European Division, the NDL Program and the curatorial divisions contributed to the project.
During the next three years, the Library and its partners will expand the number and range of collections available through "Meeting of Frontiers." The Library also will work with OSI and other U.S. and Russian institutions to disseminate "Meeting of Frontiers" by assisting teachers and librarians in making the project accessible to students and scholars. This will entail the launching of a mirror site in Russia and the development of guides for teachers and other cooperative efforts to integrate "Meeting of Frontiers" into the teaching of history and language.
Mr. Van Oudenaren is chief of the Library's European Division.