By GUY LAMOLINARA
What was once a groundbreaking initiative to bring millions of items from the national library into homes across the country by exploiting the power of technology is no longer a novelty.
This October the Library's award-winning National Digital Library Program celebrates its 10th anniversary, having become the Library's chief public outreach initiative. It is used daily by millions of Americans and others from around the world eager to tap into the byproducts of this nation's creative and intellectual achievements, and it is available to anyone who accesses the Library's Web site at www.loc.gov.
Although, in 1994, the idea of distributing high-quality content on the Internet seemed new, the initiative was based on a premise that is very old: the mission of the Library of Congress, which was established in 1800.
For more than 200 years, the Library of Congress has collected, preserved and made freely available the resources of what has grown into the world's largest library. In fulfilling its mission to "sustain and preserve a universal collection of knowledge and creativity for future generations," it has assembled an unparalleled record of the nation's collective memory.
The Library's ever-growing electronic resources help the institution fulfill another part of its mission: sharing these collections with Congress, the nation and the world. An initial foray into the distribution of electronic materials was made in the mid-1960s, when the Library began to distribute machine-readable cataloging information. However, it was not until the 1990s, with the advent of the Internet, that the collections of the Library would be made available to anyone who could access the World Wide Web.
The Beginning: American Memory Pilot
When James H. Billington was sworn in as the 13th Librarian of Congress on Sept. 14, 1987, he spoke of making the riches of the Library "even more broadly available to ever-wider circles of our multiethnic society … using new technologies to share the substantive content, and not merely the descriptive catalog, of the nation's memory."
Billington has been the driving force behind the expansion of the Library's electronic resources as a means of sharing the Library's collections. At his urging and with his full support, in 1990 the Library offered selected primary source materials from its Americana collections to schools and libraries through a five-year CD-ROM pilot project called American Memory. Its success eventually led to a proposal to Congress for the development of a more comprehensive, five-year National Digital Library Program.
During the American Memory pilot project, the Library also was experimenting with using electronic technology to bring other resources to users remotely. In 1992, for example, it began making selected images and accompanying text from its major exhibitions available on the Internet; the first two exhibitions were "Revelations from the Russian Archives" and "1492: An Ongoing Voyage." For the first time those who were unable to visit the Library to view its exhibitions could still see them from anywhere in the world, and they could view them long after the physical exhibition had closed. By spring 2004 more than 40 exhibitions covering a diverse range of subjects and media could be accessed online by users of the Library's Web site.
Also in 1992 Sens. Albert Gore (D-Tenn.) and Claiborne Pell (D-R.I.) opened the National Demonstration Laboratory for Interactive Information Technologies at the Library. The center, located in the renovated central atrium of the James Madison Building and supported by private resources and equipment, was a two-year project to allow visitors to evaluate the latest interactive educational and informational systems.
The following year the world's largest card catalog became available online. The Library of Congress Information System, in addition to records of the Library's holdings also included status of legislation, copyright registration records and other resources. Today, the catalogs are available at http://catalog.loc.gov.
The Library's electronic resources have always been of special interest to members of the legislative and executive branches of government. The Librarian has testified before Congress many times about the importance of new technologies in shaping the Library's future. In April 1993, for example, he discussed the effect that the "first waves of the new electronic technology" were having both on society and the Library of Congress; he also asserted his view that this technology, in its expanding and ever-changing role, would always supplement—but never supplant—books, reading and libraries.
On July 14, 1993, Billington and Vice President Gore co-chaired the Library's first major conference on electronic library resources, "Delivering Electronic Information in a Knowledge-Based Democracy."
Partnerships with the private sector have played a vital role in the development of the Library's electronic resources. Pilot projects in 1993 included one in which the Library and Jones Intercable demonstrated the new use of cable television technology for interactive access to American Memory materials in schools in Colorado, and the Library and Bell Atlantic joined in a project in Union City, N.J., to test the use of a telephone network delivery system for disseminating unique research materials from the Library's collections.
Following the 1993 conference, Billington continued to make his case for the important role libraries would play in the emerging "electronic superhighway." In his winter 1994 article in Media Studies Journal, he stated his belief that "if the new electronic superhighways are truly to serve America, they must do more than offer entertainment and high-priced information on demand to the well-to-do at home or in the office. Such a strategy would forfeit the technology's great potential for national progress and create information ‘haves' and ‘have-nots.'"
In April 1994 he testified with other distinguished representatives from the library community before the Senate Subcommittee on Education, Arts and Humanities: "If in creating the [information] superhighway we do not include public libraries, the superhighway will bypass and shut out many of our citizens. We will have created information ‘haves' and ‘have nots,'" he said, echoing his article in Media Studies.
As the American Memory pilot drew to a close, the Library surveyed the 44 selected schools and libraries that had participated. The response was enthusiastic, especially from teachers and students in middle and high schools. But distributing these materials in CD-ROM format was both inefficient and prohibitively expensive.
Creation of the National Digital Library
Fortunately, by 1994 technology had caught up with the Library's vision of its new educational outreach role: The World Wide Web could be used by anyone with access to the Internet. The Library took advantage of the opportunity and, on Oct. 13, 1994, announced that it had received $13 million in private sector donations to establish the National Digital Library (NDL) Program: $5 million each from John Kluge and the Lucile and David Packard Foundation; $3 million from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. Thanks to this fortuitous convergence of technology, generous support and vision, the NDL Program would begin placing digital materials from the Library's collections on the newly emerging World Wide Web.
The NDL made its debut with a commitment to placing online 5 million items from the collections of the Library and other institutions by the year 2000. The materials would be presented as part of American Memory, which on that day lost its status as a pilot and became a full-fledged program, one of the first large-scale efforts to use the Internet to disseminate high-quality educational and cultural content—digital versions of vast riches of the American collections of the Library of Congress.
From the beginning the National Digital Library Program was envisioned as a public-private partnership. The U.S. Congress agreed in 1994 to appropriate $15 million for the program over its first five years and asked the Library to raise an additional $45 million in private funds, for a total of $60 million. The Library exceeded that goal by raising more than $48 million from the private sector and making available more than 5 million items by 2000.
Today there are more than 9 million items available online, ranging from papers of the U.S. presidents, Civil War photographs and early films of Thomas Edison to documents from the women's suffrage and civil rights movements, Jazz Age photographs and the first baseball cards. To make the National Digital Library Program a truly national effort, the American Memory site includes important collections from more than 30 other institutions nationwide. It is the largest body of freely available educational content on the Internet.
American Memory focuses not on materials that are often available locally, but on materials that can only be accessed at the Library of Congress—often unique and iconic items from the nation's past as well as present—such as Abraham Lincoln's draft of the Gettysburg Address; personal narratives of slaves; notebooks of Walt Whitman; Alexander Graham Bell's drawing of a telephone; baseball cards featuring early heroes of the sport; the music of Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein; films documenting the origins of American animation; papers of Samuel F.B. Morse and an image of the first telegram ever transmitted; railroad maps; and images of U.S. presidential inaugurations, from George Washington to George W. Bush.
Now American Memory offers those 9 million items organized into more than 125 thematic collections, and it handles as many as 63 million transactions a month.
The Learning Page
The growing American Memory site has spawned other online projects geared to specific audiences; the Learning Page Web site, for example, is aimed at schools. From the start, American Memory was seen as a way to deliver primary resource materials from the Library's collections to teachers and their students. As Laura Campbell, director of the National Digital Library and Associate Librarian for Strategic Initiatives, said when the NDL Program debuted, "We will find a synergy between the Library's digitization project and the needs of elementary and secondary school teachers. We will be learning from teachers how best they want to use our digitized primary source materials in the classroom."
In July 1995, the Library awarded a contract to the Center for Children and Technology in New York City to help determine the most effective methods for K-12 students to use the digitized primary sources of American Memory. Results led to the first of American Memory's "spinoffs."
Introduced in 1996 as a companion to the American Memory collections, the Learning Page Web site (www.loc.gov/learn/) is a key component of the Library's educational outreach effort. Specifically designed for K-12 educators and their students, the site offers teachers an easy-to-use guide to employing the Library's online resources in the classroom. The content of the digital collections is presented in an appropriate context—lessons, curriculum guides, "how-to" projects and other learning activities. In addition, the Learning Page presents guides to other electronic resources, professional development workshops and a "community center" offering online chats.
A teacher who is a frequent user of the Learning Page primary sources in the classroom says, "The sounds of turning pages and copying machines that represented discovery and authentic learning in the past have been replaced with the sound of mouse clicks and the whir of a color printer. The results are deep and personal understandings of who we are and what we still can be."
Another program to reach educators has been the American Memory Fellows Institute. Two hundred fifty teachers have participated in these summer institutes at the Library, and in turn they have introduced the American Memory collections to other educators across the country. The Library's educational outreach staff continue today to assist teachers through online chats, lesson plans and teacher-student activities available from the Learning Page.
One American Memory fellow remarks that "my students have been transported by the American Memory collections. To study life at the turn of the [21st] century and then find an actual picture for that era amazes my students. It makes history come alive for them."
The National Digital Library Program from the start was envisioned as a collaborative effort among the Library and other institutions. A gift of $2 million from Ameritech in 1996 helped make that vision a reality. The Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition was a three-year program that made awards to 33 institutions. These institutions have contributed 23 thematic collections to American Memory that complement and augment the Library's online materials.
Public interest and use of the Library's electronic resources was surging at the time, as the media provided unprecedented coverage of the Library as an institution at the forefront of a still-new technology. Time magazine named American Memory one of the "best Web sites of 1996," and a Sept. 29, 1996, article in Parade magazine resulted in a sixfold jump in loc.gov "hits" the day it ran.
Another award, this one for the entire Library of Congress Web site, came in February 1997, when PC Magazine cited loc.gov as one of "The Best of the Web." By this time American Memory was well on its way to fulfilling its promise of 5 million digital materials by 2000.
Early in 1998 the first electronic versions of presidential papers, those of George Washington, became available on the Web site. Today, users can access the papers of Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln, as well as Washington.
One of the highlights of the 1999 electronic collections was the debut of more than 2,100 early baseball cards, including the first known card. The noted Lincoln biographer Carl Sandburg had donated the cards to the Library in 1954. By this time, American Memory's collection count was more than 40.
America's Story from America's Library
In 2000 the America's Library Web site for children and families was launched during the celebration of the 200th birthday of the Library of Congress (www.americaslibrary.gov). This interactive site, the second American Memory spin-off, draws on materials from American Memory and presents them in stories that are especially appealing to a younger audience. (See selections from the site at right.) After American Memory, it is the Library's second most popular Web site, logging more than 18 million transactions per month during fiscal year 2003.
National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program
The Library's 200th birthday year also saw the birth of a new national program to collect and preserve the burgeoning amounts of digital information, especially the so-called born-digital materials—those that exist in no other form.
That December, Congress authorized the Library of Congress to develop and execute a congressionally approved plan for a National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. A $99.8 million congressional appropriation was made to establish the program. According to the conference report (H. Rept. 106-1033), "The overall plan should set forth a strategy for the Library of Congress, in collaboration with other federal and nonfederal entities, to identify a national network of libraries and other organizations with responsibilities for collecting digital materials that will provide access to and maintain those materials. … In addition to developing this strategy, the plan shall set forth, in concert with the Copyright Office, the policies, protocols and strategies for the long-term preservation of such materials, including the technological infrastructure required at the Library of Congress."
The legislation mandates that the Library work with federal entities such as the Secretary of Commerce, the Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Library of Medicine, the National Agricultural Library, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and "other federal, research and private libraries and institutions with expertise in telecommunications technology and electronic commerce policy." The goal is to build a network of committed partners working through a preservation architecture of defined roles and responsibilities.
The complete text of the "Plan for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program" is available at www.digitalpreservation.gov. This includes an explanation of how the plan was developed, who the Library worked with to develop the plan and the key components of the digital preservation infrastructure. (See related story on page 202 about the Library's recent awards of nearly $15 million to outside partners to begin building a network to assist in digital preservation.)
Wise Guide to loc.gov
In 2002 the Library launched a new online monthly magazine called "Wise Guide" (www.loc.gov/wiseguide/) to introduce newcomers to many useful educational resources on the Library's Web site in a comprehensive and visually appealing way. Each monthly magazine features seven "articles" linked to Web pages containing online materials from throughout the Library.
America's Library and Wise Guide are being advertised in cooperation with the Ad Council. The slogan "There's a better way to have fun with history. Log on. Play around. Learn something" beckons users to America's Library, while "It's fun to know history" draws visitors to the Wise Guide.
During fiscal 2003 more than 2.6 billion transactions were recorded on all of the Library's computer systems. The Library's Web site is now one of the federal government's most popular, a national resource as diverse as the nation it serves.
Guy Lamolinara is special assistant for communications in the Library's Office of Strategic Initiatives. This article was based on an essay from the "Encyclopedia of the Library of Congress," edited by John Y. Cole and Jane Aikin, to be published this December by Bernan Press in cooperation with the Library of Congress.