By HELEN DALRYMPLE
The so-called Age of Information has had no trouble living up to its namesake. But successfully delivering that information to a broad spectrum of the public has proved to be a much more difficult hurdle.
Some 45 leading figures from government, the private sector, libraries and academia met at the Library on July 14 to explore the possibilities for improving the delivery of electronic information.
Dr. Billington chaired the daylong meeting, and Vice President Albert Gore served as the honorary chair. The vice president's participation, however, went far beyond the traditional "honorary" role, as he played a very active role in the first session of the meeting.
The subject of electronic information and the "electronic superhighway" has long interested Vice President Gore. He has been quoted as saying he would eventually like to see every schoolchild able to "hook up" to the Library of Congress.
The original idea for the conference was developed in discussions between Dr. Billington and Madison Council member Raymond W. Smith, chairman and chief executive officer of Bell Atlantic Corp., and refined at a meeting with Vice President Gore at the White House.
Jane Bortnick Griffith, acting associate librarian for Science and Technology, organized the meeting, assisted by Patricia Raap and Dennis Hanratty.
Dr. Billington has testified before Congress several times on the vital role that new electronic technologies will play in the future of the Library of Congress, most recently on April 21 before the Joint Committee on the Library when he said: "The first waves of the new electronic technology are upon us, with vast economic and social implications. But the technology will supplement, not supplant, the book, and make libraries and librarians more, not less, important. The keys to the future are cooperation, standardization, practicality, flexibility."
The conference focused on three basic themes: building, locating and preserving the electronic store of knowledge; public and private sector roles; and mechanisms for protecting intellectual property rights.
Opening the conference, Dr. Billington laid the ground rules for discussion: "We see this as a dynamic process where people present not only their own perspective but have the chance to listen to others, to evolve thinking. We see it as the beginning of a continuing effort which we are happy to host here at the Library, to convene key players in the electronic information age in order to help forge new relationships, as well as move toward framing or suggesting some policies.
"Today," Dr. Billington continued, "the point is to identify areas where consensus exists, where it doesn't, try to define and clarify what the alternative options are and what further effort is needed to produce a greater consensus in the national interest. We also want to determine what type of follow-on to this meeting would be most useful."
Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) spoke during the opening session, along with Vice President Gore.
Sen. Kerrey issued a call for "partners" in informing and educating citizens in their homes through the use of electronic systems, and Rep. Gingrich asked for help "at the vision level" to "tell us in elected office what we should be striving for and then let us fight over the details." He emphasized, though, that "first the country has to get hooked on the dream before they're going to fight over building a highway to that dream."
There was general agreement that both government and the private sector have a role to play in building the national information infrastructure.
"There is an appropriate role for the federal government in building the backbone, setting the standards, ensuring interoperability, ensuring that the public will get the benefit of a nationwide information infrastructure that pushes the envelope of the technology," said Mr. Gore, "while at the same time recognizing that most" of the responsibility for building the infrasctructure should be borne by the private sector.
"But it's also important," he continued, "for the nation not to allow our information infrastructure to be contorted, contained and shrunk by the limited vision of information products and services that exist on a short horizon that can be financed in the private sector. I think that it is appropriate for the government also to hold out the vision of the next generation of products in a way that libraries have done in the past."
Rep. Markey remarked that Congress had greatly increased its sophistication about digital networking in the past few years: "The good news is that almost every member of Congress supports the information highway. The bad news is no one has the vaguest idea what it is. And in between that gap, there's a tremendous opportunity for us to construct something here for the country."
In a more serious vein, Rep. Markey continued: "We have to decide who we want to benefit from it. We have to decide who should and will participate in the construction of the superhighway. And, third, we have to deal with the very real privacy issues that are raised as we move into this digital world. ... The government has a real role here, to make sure that every American, regardless of income, regardless of race, is plugged into this information superhighway."
Following the departure of the vice president, the Librarian initiated a general discussion of some of the issues involved in developing and moderating the flow of electronic information.
One of the issues raised focused on the barriers to the development of a national information infrastructure, from the public's lack of knowledge about digital formats to the absence of economic structures to provide copyright protection in the new marketplace.
Participants also discussed the need for standards, the problem of preserving digital data and the role libraries should play in the electronic superhighway.
Robert Wedgeworth, interim university librarian at the University of Illinois, contended that libraries do not have a unique role to play: "If we've learned anything about what's happened in the last couple of decades through the convergence of technologies, it is that there will be few unique roles for any agency or organization. ... But we all have a role to play if we're going to bring up this new electronic highway that will have the access roads to all the little villages and hamlets across the country."
And Tim Boggs of Time Warner Inc. added: "I think one of the things that is going to be most useful in today's sessions is for those of us in the private sector to begin to understand some of the barriers that you in the library world see to the enormous transactions that may be possible between your users and your collections and for us to try to convey to you a very important message. And that is this: that we have incredible incentives to work with you to eliminate those barriers."
Discussion during the afternoon session focused on the three major themes of the conference, with Library of Congress staff introducing, summarizing and facilitating the give and take among the participants.
With regard to the first topic -- building, locating and preserving digital information -- participants again raised the question of standards as well as the need for education and training to use data networks at the local level.
The development and use of the Internet was only one of many models of successful public and private sector collaboration cited during discussion of the second major theme: roles of the public and private sectors in the electronic delivery of information.
Robert Kahn, president of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives, said the role of government should be as a "collaborative participant ... in which the federal government enables things, particularly at the cutting edge of technology and research, and empowers groups, either by imprimatur or its convening power or its ... credibility, speaking on behalf of the people of the country, to bring together the relevant parties to make things happen."
The final topic of the afternoon, protection of the rights of authorship, was introduced by former Register of Copyrights Barbara Ringer and provoked some of the day's liveliest discussion, with no apparent consensus over the most appropriate mechanism for protecting copyrighted material.
Mr. Kahn said, "I don't think it's going to be either extreme... I think you're going to see a combination of methods, and I think they're going to depend on the industry, the nature of the customer base in those areas where there are high-value services being offered."
Added Mr. Wedgeworth: "We need to educate the public about what the creative process is, what it contributes to society and how we sustain it under copyright."
"I think there seemed to be a consensus, more implied than directly stated," noted Dr. Billington in summing up the day's discussions, "that there's a clear government role to ensure the public interest and to promote innovation, and that this ... should be designed to contribute to, not inhibit or compete with, private investment and innovation."
Mr. Smith agreed and added, "Where the government, I think, can play its greatest role is in the areas such as standards, for not just data locator systems, but for retention, and intercommunicatability, and all of those sorts of things that governments can do, but opposing competitors cannot. Encouragement ... of open, accessible and interoperatable architecture for all systems is something that the government can do."