By GUY LAMOLINARA
In an event that brought together the nation's political leadership, the Librarian of Congress and the titans of the communications industry, President Clinton, on Feb. 8, signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 into law in the Main Reading Room of the Library.
During the ceremony, Dr. Billington was praised for the pioneering role the Library is playing as a major intellectual- content provider on the Internet.
"It is fitting that we mark this moment here in the Library of Congress," said President Clinton. "It is Thomas Jefferson's building. Most of you know Jefferson deeded his books to the Library after our first Library burned in the War of 1812. The volumes that line these walls grew out of Jefferson's legacy. ... Today the information revolution is spreading light -- the light Jefferson spoke about -- all across our land and across the world. It will allow every American child to bring the ideas stored in this reading room into his or her own living room."
Vice President Albert Gore, who in 1993 joined Dr. Billington in hosting a Library conference on the Information Superhighway, said, "This legislation will expand and strengthen universal service. .. It allows open access to the pipelines of knowledge."
The event was historic in two ways: The Telecommunications Act of 1996 was the first bill to be signed into law at the Library of Congress and the first to be signed in cyberspace. After the president signed the bill on paper, he also "signed" it electronically -- the entire event was available in real time over the Internet using a high-speed, fiber-optic synchronous optical network link.
Lily Tomlin, playing Ernestine the phone operator, brought her own brand of levity to the august occasion. "Have I reached the party to whom I am speaking?" she asked Mr. Gore, who was trying to reach Washington's Calvin Coolidge High School to speak with students about their use of the Information Superhighway.
Ms. Tomlin appeared on a monitor via the Internet connection. "Oh, Mr. Veep. Surfing the 'Net, downloading images of global climate change again? You crazy guy. It's true what I've been telling my friends. You're not stiff, you're just a techno-nerd.
"Hold on to your semiconductor. I'll load the software right away. ... You and the president are infonauts," she said as she placed the call and signed off.
"How do you think this bill will have an impact on your lives?" the vice president asked the students.
"Thanks to the telecommunications bill, I believe that it will open up new horizons for international access for cultures all over the world," said one student.
"I'd like to thank you for signing the telecom bill. It will make advances in technology readily available to a diverse group of people," another one said.
President Clinton began his remarks by thanking the Library for hosting the signing. "My understanding is this may be the first time in three decades when a bill has been signed on Capitol Hill.
The event was fraught with symbolism, from the setting -- the high-domed Main Reading Room, which for many is the heart of the Library and a center of learning -- to the pen used for the signing: the same one President Eisenhower used when he signed the Interstate Highway Act of 1957, "which met the challenge of change ... and literally brought Americans closer together," the president said. "That same spirit of connection and communication is the driving force behind the Telecommunications Act of 1996."
The chief sponsor of the 1957 law was Albert Gore Sr., the vice president's father, who received the pen from Eisenhower. "His son is in many ways the father of this legislation because he's worked on it for more than 20 years, since he first began to promote what he called, in the phrase he coined, the Information Superhighway," said President Clinton.
One provision of the bill mandates that schools, libraries and hospitals receive telecommunications services at reduced cost. "This simple act," said the president, "will bring us one giant step closer to realizing the challenge I put forward in the State of the Union [address], to connect all our classrooms and libraries to the Information Superhighway by the year 2000."
President Clinton also said he was "very proud" that the bill requires use of the so-called V-chip, which will screen out television programming that parents want their children to avoid.
Following Mr. Clinton with remarks were key members of Congress who had worked on the bill: Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.); Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.); Sen. Ernest F. Hollings (D-S.C.); Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr. (R-Va.); Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.); and Ron Brown, the secretary of Commerce.
Speaker Gingrich acknowledged Dr. Billington as "a leader on a world basis in knitting the world together" through the Library's National Digital Library Program. Speaker Gingrich also praised the Library for its THOMAS online legislative system, which he announced to the public at a ceremony at the Library in January 1995.
Secretary Brown, who is chairman of the National Information Infrastructure Task Force, introduced Dr. Billington as someone who is "bringing the Library of Congress into the Information Age. Through the National Digital Library Program, the Library of Congress is creating online access to its catalog, its exhibitions and its unique American collections, as well as to congressional information."
Dr. Billington said that "as an avid inventor and educator, Jefferson, were he here today, would surely be intrigued with this new world of computer and telecommunications technology -- and glad to see so many entrepreneurial forces gathered together with national political leaders in the building that bears his name."
Those entrepreneurial forces were well represented in the Main Reading Room by Ted Turner, whose Turner Classic Movies channel helps support the Library's National Film Registry Tour (see LC Information Bulletin, Feb. 5, 1996), and by several members of the Madison Council, the Library's private sector advisory group: John Hendricks of the Discovery Channel, Glenn Jones of Jones Intercable, Jean Monty of Northern Telecom, Donald Newhouse of Advance Publications, William O'Shea of Reuters Ltd. and Ray Smith of Bell Atlantic. Also in the audience was Jack Valenti of the Motion Picture Association of America.
Dr. Billington continued: "We like to think that [Jefferson] would also be pleased to see the Library launching through a new kind of public-private partnership: an ambitious program to digitize 5 million items from our unique collections of Americana for educational and inspirational use in schools, libraries and homes all over America."
"Inventing a new nation required studying a lot of past history in Jefferson's time, and new technologies can help us in our own time to rediscover the old records and values that can lead us on to new creativity. America's free libraries keep democracy dynamic by using new means to give more people more access to the ever expanding body of human knowledge."
Ending the proceedings, Dr. Billington pointed to the Jefferson Building dome, nearly 160 feet above his head. "There is a lovely lady looking down on us today -- as she has on readers for 100 years -- from inside the cupola at the highest point in this room. She is lifting back the veil of ignorance and is called simply Human Understanding. May we and all our communications serve her well in the years that lie ahead."