By JOHN Y. COLE
Nearly everything the Library of Congress accomplishes depends on its incomparable collections, which are acquired, stored, preserved, organized, cataloged and shared through dozens of different Library programs. Since collection development is of such fundamental importance, it is not surprising that obtaining new collections has been an important part of the Library's Bicentennial program. The focus in particular has been on the Gifts to the Nation and Local Legacies projects. But how does the Library let members of Congress, scholars, citizens and the rest of the world know which collections and research materials it has acquired?
Traditionally it has relied on the printed word, primarily its own printed lists and catalogs, printed catalog cards and lists of recent acquisitions, specialized books, guides, pamphlets and facsimiles. In the 1990s, CD-ROMs and online information about the Library's resources on its Web site (www.loc.gov) began supplementing the standard printed resources. The Library has also been the subject of thousands of reports in newspapers, magazines and other publications, and on television, radio and the Internet. Some of the Library's milestones in describing and publicizing its collections:
The 19th Century
The Library publishes its first catalog, Catalogue of the Books, Maps and Charts Belonging to the Library of the Two Houses of Congress in 1802. In 1815 Librarian of Congress George Watterston (1815-1829) produces a catalog of Thomas Jefferson's library that was arranged according to Jefferson's classification system, Catalogue of the Library of the United States: To Which Is Annexed, a Copious Index, Alphabetically Arranged. Until the Civil War, because its collections grew slowly, the Library periodically was able to issue printed book catalogs and supplements that listed its holdings. In 1867 Librarian of Congress Ainsworth Rand Spofford (1864-1897) writes a detailed report for Congress about the contents and research potential of collector Peter Force's library of Americana, which Spofford successfully acquired the same year. In 1869 he prepares the Library's first printed subject catalog (the two-volume Catalogue of the Library of Congress: Index of Subjects), but the next year he centralizes all U.S. copyright activities at the Library, and soon he will be swamped with incoming collections, as the copyright law required that two copies of works submitted for copyright be deposited with the Library. The Library was rapidly outgrowing its quarters in the U.S. Capitol. From this time, until the Jefferson Building opened in 1897, the Library was forced to stop all cataloging and publishing activities.
Under the leadership of Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam (1899-1939), the Library begins sharing information about its holdings through the sale and distribution of printed catalog cards and by taking the first steps in the development of a national union catalog. It also produces three significant publications that describe its collections: A Calendar of Washington Manuscripts in the Library of Congress, A Check List of American Newspapers in the Library of Congress, and A List of Maps of America in the Library of Congress.
Putnam announces the publication, for the first time, of historical texts from the Library's collections, specifically the Journals of the Continental Congress and the Records of the Virginia Company. The Librarian explains his three reasons for publishing these manuscripts: to "save excessive wear and tear upon the originals," to "enable the texts to be studied by investigators who cannot come to Washington," and to "promote a proper understanding and representation of American history." In his Annual Report for 1901, Putnam begins listing recent purchases and manuscript accessions and lists all newspapers "currently on file in the Library of Congress." The Annual Report remains the most important publication for describing the collections until the mid-1940s.
Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish (1939-1943) establishes the Library of Congress Quarterly Journal of Current Acquisitions. The new journal's purpose is to publicize the Library's collections and programs and, technically speaking, it is a supplement to the Annual Report.
The Library publishes A Guide to the Special Book Collections in the Library of Congress, a 66-page publication that mentions 140 book collections, compiled by Shirley Pearlove.
The Library publishes Special Collections in the Library of Congress: A Selective Guide, by Annette Melville, a 464-page book "limited to describing 269 of the Library's many special collections."
The Library inaugurates a new series of separately published reports that will introduce new acquisitions in each of its specialized research collections. The first (left) describes the Manuscript Division's acquisitions in 1979.
James H. Billington becomes the 13th Librarian of Congress. One of his chief goals is to harness the power of technology to share the Library's collections as widely as possible.
The Library begins digitizing selected American history collections and distributing these electronic collections selectively for evaluation to 44 test sites in 27 states.
With financial assistance from the Madison Council, which was established by Dr. Billington to help the Library of Congress "share its unique resources with the nation and the world," the Library publishes the first in a series of brief, well-illustrated guides to its special collections, Rare Books and Special Collections: An Illustrated Guide (left). The same year the Library publishes Keys to the Encounter: A Library of Congress Resource Guide to the Study of the Age of Discovery, the first in a series of detailed collection descriptions about specific topics. Also in 1992, the Library presents its first online version of a major exhibition: "Revelations from the Russian Archives."
With congressional approval, on April 30, the Library permits public electronic access via the Internet to the Library of Congress Information System, which contains 27 million bibliographic records. In June the Library establishes a World Wide Web site at www.loc.gov.
On Oct. 13, Dr. Billington announces gifts totaling $13 million that will enable the Library to support a five-year National Digital Library Program for digitizing and making available on the Internet millions of items from the American history collections.
In cooperation with the Library, Alfred A. Knopf publishes Eyes of the Nation: A Visual History of the United States, a 384-page book based on the Library's special collections that contains more than 500 illustrations, most of them in full color. Simultaneously ArtLook Inc. publishes a companion CD-ROM that includes more than 2,500 images, specially created multimedia exhibits, and access to the Library's Web site.
On its 200th birthday, the Library unveils a new Web site (www.americaslibrary.gov) designed specifically for families. The Library receives unprecedented publicity for all its Bicentennial activities. The Library, in cooperation with other research institutions, reaches its Bicentennial goal of making more than 5 million items of American history available without charge over the Internet. More than 85 of the digitized collections, containing millions of items, are documents, manuscripts, films, photographs and sound recordings from the Library of Congress.
Mr. Cole is director of the Center for the Book and co-chair of the Bicentennial Steering Committee.