By JAMES H. BILLINGTON
In this issue of the LC Information Bulletin, I extend a special greeting to those attending the 1997 Midwinter Meeting of the American Library Association in the nation's capital.
The Library of Congress serves both the national legislature and the broader public, working with other libraries and institutions.
At the direction of Congress, the Library administers several activities of national importance: the Copyright Office, the Congressional Research Service, the Law Library -- and the National Library Service for the Blind and Physically handicapped, serving some 750,000 Americans in need.
At the core of all our activities are the acquisition, organization, cataloging, preservation, and dissemination of the record of human creativity and accomplishment embodied in a universal collection of more than 111 million items in 450 languages. Two-thirds of our holdings are in nonbook formats: maps, newspapers, periodicals, films and sound recordings, documents, prints and photographs, CD-ROMS, personal papers, rare manuscripts.
Our catalogers provide the basic bibliographic record for the nation's libraries -- a data base of 27 million records that is now accessible on our Web site via the Internet, along with congressional information and much else. Our six overseas offices purchase materials not only for the Library of Congress but for 60 other American research libraries. Our interlibrary loan service responds to some 45,000 requests a year from libraries across the country. Our Center for the Book promotes libraries, reading and literacy working with 31 state centers and 80 national organizations.
Since 1994, with public and (mostly) private funding, we have been developing the National Digital Library Program aimed at supplying electronically some of the content of the Library's Americana collections -- and those of other great repositories -- to schools, libraries and the public across America. The program is designed to supply high-quality cargo for whatever form the Information Superhighway may ultimately take. We are focusing on digitizing our most interesting and important nonbook materials; some 350,000 digital images are now online (reachable on the Internet at http://www.loc.gov) with 1.7 million more in the pipeline.
Placing the multi-medial primary records of American history and culture online humanizes history and activates critical thinking for a new audio-visual generation. This approach has proven itself (at 44 sites around the country during a five-year test period) capable of stimulating youngsters to ask questions that can only be answered in books -- in effect, an electronic "hook" to pull people back into reading. We are not, for the most part, digitizing books, believing that the book, that most user-friendly medium, has a bright future; our great-grandchildren will not be reading Shakespeare's plays or Moby Dick on computer screens.
Our purpose in exploiting technology is to reinforce learning in local communities. The special local knowledge of public libraries lies at the heart of any information delivery system. Libraries still hold the keys to whether open public access to knowledge and information will continue or collapse. Like the Library of Congress, local libraries across the nation will need strong public and private support as we make the transition to new technologies while upholding the best traditions of the past.
James H. Billington is the Librarian of Congress.