By GUY LAMOLINARA
The nation's library is increasingly becoming "the nation's virtual library," thanks to the National Digital Library Program at the Library of Congress, one of the leading providers of intellectual content on the Internet.
In the past 12 months, collections such as documents of the Continental Congress and Constitutional Convention, daguerreotype photographs, pamphlets relating to slavery and the civil rights movement, and documents from the National American Woman Suffrage Association have been placed online at http://www.loc.gov/. On July 6, new collections of photographs will be added documenting the evolution of the conservation movement in America, building styles and social trends throughout the nation, and the development of Washington as an urban center.
Dr. Billington is committed to sharing the resources of the Library with those who have built its collections: the American people. "The collections of the Library belong to all Americans, not just those who can make the trip to Washington," he said. "By making freely available millions of unique items from our nation's history by the year 2000, citizens everywhere will be able to share in the American experience."
This major undertaking would not be possible without support from taxpayers - through congressional appropriations - and from the private sector - through contributions to the program. Congress has pledged $3 million for fiscal 1996-2000 (for a total of $15 million), and the Library is committed to raising $45 million from the private sector. So far, more than $22 million has been raised. Major gifts and pledges during the past year have come from Ameritech ($2 million), Bell Atlantic ($1.5 million) Reuters ($1 million) and Kodak ($1 million).
The merits of the National Digital Library (NDL) Program have been recognized by the legislative as well as executive branches of government. Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has said that "the National Digital Library Program is one that will play a major role in enlarging and enriching the human race."
President Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act of 1996 in February in the Library's Main Reading Room, noting: "It is fitting that we mark this moment here in the Library of Congress," he said. Today the information revolution is spreading the light. _ It will allow every American child to bring the ideas stored in this reading room into his or her own living room."
This progress and recognition have not come without significant efforts on the part of Library staff. "During the past year, we have created a robust nationwide implementation plan while continuing to digitize materials," said Laura Campbell, director of the NDL Program. "We have set in place over a dozen functions and a staff of 65 to carry out this important vision: 'to provide the widest possible access to knowledge and information for educating and enriching a free society.'"
This wide access has also allowed the Library to reach a constituency not previously served in its 21 reading rooms: K-12 students and teachers. A new Learning Page (http://memory.loc.gov/learn) was launched in March with that community in mind. The page offers organized help for searching the Library's electronic primary source materials. "We are eager to serve students and educators with free access to the Library's primary source materials of rare Americana," said Martha Dexter of the NDL Program's educational services branch.
Teachers across the country have responded positively to this new access: "Primary source materials from the Library of Congress add flesh and blood to the story of history," said Bernard Hollister of the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy in Aurora. "The picture collections provide a visual history which engages students in new ways," said Gwen Harrison of Hammond Middle School in Alexandria, Va.
Already, nearly 11 million transactions are logged per month by outside users of the Library's electronic services. More than 4 million outside transactions were registered by the World Wide Web site; nearly 2 million by THOMAS, a congressional database; about 4 million by LOCIS, which includes the online catalog and other databases; and about 1 million by LC MARVEL, the Library's text-based information system.
Clearly, the public finds these electronic services useful. In an effort to make its collections and other offerings easier to access, the Library is debuting a new homepage (see following story). THOMAS has already reworked its interface to make it more u ser-friendly.
In the interest of making the online catalog more accessible, the Library Services area has initiated a Z39.50 gateway, which provides an easy-to-use fill-in form interface.
In an effort to standardize the use of searchable texts, the NDL digital conversion team completed development of a Standard Generalized Markup Language (SGML) approach for searchable texts. (SGML allows computers to display converted text in a fashion prescribed by the editor of the text). The Library uses the coding scheme when searchable texts, as opposed to mere images of pages, are prepared for historical books, pamphlets, documents and manuscripts.
Throughout the past year, a task force has worked on identifying American history collections for possible digitization. The resulting list of approximately 200 collections will form the basis for planning the next phase of digitization.
The NDL program has always billed itself as a collaborative effort, and the April 18 announcement of the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition will help make that a reality. The competition will give libraries across the country the opportunity to apply for funds to digitize their unique Americana materials (see story on page 240).
According to Dr. Billington, "With the help of Congress, the American people and private industry, we are building a national resource that has the potential to revitalize education for learners of all ages."