By AUDREY FISCHER
Fifteen years may be a brief moment in time, but it is long enough to experience a revolution. So said retiring Information Technology Services (ITS) Director Herbert S. Becker, who presented his reflections on 15 years of technological change at the Library at a Nov. 21 program sponsored by the Technology Users Group. Mr. Becker retired on Dec. 30 with 43 years of federal service.
"It has been a remarkable time to be at the Library," said Mr. Becker. "As you work at the Library day to day, making a myriad of decisions, change seems to be evolutionary rather than revolutionary. But when you look back, you realize that there has been a revolution in the information industry that has had a major impact on how the Library does business."
When Mr. Becker first came to the Library in July 1985, the mainframe computer was dominant, and "big" was the operative word. Two mainframes stretched across the entire computer room floor. While performance and storage capacity increased dramatically over time, the size of the mainframe and its associated storage devices were drastically reduced in size.
"We used to talk about running out of space," joked Mr. Becker. "Today we could actually lease some of our floor space. Compared with 400 gigabytes of storage in the entire Computer Center in 1985, we can now provide 10 gigabytes on someone's desktop," he added.
Much has also changed in the way information is distributed throughout the organization. During the early 1980s, staff members came to the Computer Center with a cart to pick up their computer output. Local area networks (LANs) were still in the future, as was the concept of a personal computer with a printer on nearly every desk. Mr. Becker recalled the days of the standalone word processor, with no other functionality.
"Sometimes it worked, and sometimes it didn't," he recalled.
The move from these early word processors to more versatile personal computers was a key component of the "revolution" of which Mr. Becker spoke.
"The ability to move computing power from a central room to peoples' desktops made computers a more integral part of everyone's workday," he observed. "But it also presented a management challenge."
For example, the upgrading of software could no longer be done at the mainframe level, but had to be distributed to everyone's machine. LANs held some promises, but the Library's technical staff soon realized that the Library's buildings were wired for voice, not data communications.
Thus began the "Premise Distribution System"—the effort to upgrade the wiring in all three buildings to standard level five copper and fiber—which made possible the installation of a LAN infrastructure. The renovation of the Jefferson and Adams buildings, which began in the mid 1980s, made this an opportune time for the upgrade. A second upgrade, which is now under way, will move the Library's telecommunications systems from a 4 megabits per second token ring connection to a 100 megabits per second Ethernet connection.
Mr. Becker also noted that the Library has historically been a leader in many areas of the technology revolution. Outside of the scientific research community, the Library has been close to the cutting edge of technology, according to Mr. Becker. Early in the 1990s, when he began to serve as the Legislative Branch representative to the National Information Infrastructure (NII) Task Force, Mr. Becker noted that agencywide electronic mail was a novelty in many federal agencies. By comparison, a Library-wide e-mail system was already in place. With the aim of building "a seamless web of communications networks in the United States and around the world," one of the NII's first assignments was to get its members connected through e-mail so they could work more easily together to support this initiative.
Similarly, the Library was quick to connect to the Internet when it was still in its infancy.
The Library's first use of the Internet during the early 1990s made possible a joint software development project with IBM to replace the Library's 3270 Comterms (mainly used for cataloging and searching the Library's databases) with more standard personal computers that could be used for word processing and many other functions. At the time, IBM's subcontractor on this project was located in England.
"Since we could test the software being developed with them electronically over the Internet, we didn't get to visit in person," joked Mr. Becker.
On a serious note, Mr. Becker said that one of the themes of his tenure as ITS director has been to make the Library's computer hardware and software more standardized by purchasing and implementing products that are commercially available and supportable. While customizing the Library's systems made sense when there were no products on the market to meet its information needs, the situation has changed. Mr. Becker believes that what is to be gained from standardization outweighs what is lost by no longer customizing its systems to specific Library applications.
On April 30, 1993, the Library's card catalog debuted on the Internet.
"I wish I had kept my notes from the planning meetings," said Mr. Becker, who recalled a lively debate on the subject. "Some thought it would be just a novelty and that people wouldn't really use it. Today it remains one of the Library's most popular online resources. The Library can be proud of its role in making geographic boundaries irrelevant in terms of the ability to communicate and share its resources."
Mr. Becker, who still keeps a box of vintage IBM punch cards in his desk, made some observations about the impact of the technology revolution.
"Technology is ahead of our ability to deal with the issues that come with implementation," said Mr. Becker. "The technology was quick to deploy, but the impact on social institutions is not as easy to manage. The barriers are no longer hardware and software, but our imagination in dealing with issues such as privacy, security and copyright. As the institution that contains the Copyright Office, the Library is sensitive to the issue of intellectual property rights. Balancing intellectual property rights with the ability to provide global access to electronic resources is an enormously complex issue, which will no doubt pose a challenge to this generation and most likely the next generation."
Similarly, Mr. Becker noted the challenges associated with managing large-scale digital assets. While the Library is accustomed to upgrading its systems and software periodically, in the past the amount of information to be migrated from old systems to new ones was manageable.
"In the future, we will be talking in terms of migrating petabytes [1,000 gigabytes] of information, not merely gigabytes."
A case in point was the recent implementation of the Integrated Library System, which involved the migration of data from old legacy systems.
"The volume of these digital records was relatively small," said Mr. Becker. He also noted that the time period from their original creation in the late 1960s to the 1999 migration was also relatively short. "But what about long-range data migrations-50 years, 300 years, 500 years? These issues must be tackled or else the value of having vast digital resources will be diminished."
One of the most rewarding experiences of Mr. Becker's career at the Library has been his participation in the successful effort to provide the American public with information on how Congress works through the development of the THOMAS public legislative information system, and the Legislative Information System used by members of Congress and their staffs.
"This was a landmark experience," said Mr. Becker, who believes that many Americans take for granted free access to information. "Once the doors are opened on how government works, they are not easily closed. In fact, the desire is to open them even wider."
Since the inception of THOMAS in January 1995, many parliamentary leaders and representatives of other nations have contacted the Library to learn how to manage their legislative information.
"They are fascinated with the technology, but the policy issues are just as important," he observed. "Clearly, a government can use technology to communicate effectively with its citizens, if that is what the government wants to do."
"Maybe it's just my own perspective upon leaving the Library," said Mr. Becker, "but with regard to the use of technology, I believe this is just the end of one chapter with many chapters yet to be written. The Library of Congress is the nation's library and an international library, and it will continue to remain a premiere institution."
Ms. Fischer is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.