By GUY LAMOLINARA
During the first congressional hearing ever held in the Digital Library Visitors' Center, Dr. Billington and representatives from Congress, industry and education engaged in a 90-minute discussion on how to increase access to government information via the Internet.
The May 13 Congressional Internet Caucus hearing on "Making Access Easier" was co-chaired by Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.), Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Rep. Rick White (R-Wash.), who noted that, although the availability of information on the Internet is "consistent with the principles of democracy," there is some doubt as to whether it will "reach its potential."
The event was "cybercast" live via the Internet site called democracy.net, and students from Bainbridge Island, Wash.; Target Range Mont.; and East Palo Alto, Calif. submitted questions for the panelists.
Rep. White summed up the problem as being one of "so much information and so many resources," making it difficult for users to find just what they need. "The Internet may one day drown in its own abundance," he predicted, unless information providers determine ways to improve search capabilities.
Rep. Eshoo also praised the democratic nature of the Internet, "which provides a very important platform for the average person to espouse his or her views, while decrying that "there is too little known about the positive information available. We hear too much about the pornography and availability of information about making bombs.
"Let's focus on the good stuff, especially on what is available from the federal government," she added.
"One of the best perks we [in Congress] have in Washington is access to the greatest repository of knowledge in the world -- the Library of Congress," she said, as she looked toward Dr. Billington, seated at the witness table across from her. "We enrich democracy by making [the Library's collections] available to all."
Dr. Billington re-emphasized Rep. Eshoo's remarks as he told the Congress members how the Library is providing "positive" content on its Internet site (www.loc.gov), "providing as many collections as possible free."
He mentioned the Library's most important electronic initiatives, such as the 18 collections from American Memory; the congressional database THOMAS, which in addition to the content already available, will soon offer the text of congressional hearings; exhibitions; the Global Legal Information Network; and CORDS (Copyright Office Electronic Registration, Recordation and Deposit System).
"The information we provide is educational and inspirational to learners of all ages," he said.
Katherine D. Seelman, director of the National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research in the U.S. Department of Education, emphasized the need to ensure that persons with disabilities have equal access to the Internet. "Giving access to every student means every student." She urged the federal government to review the guidelines on accessibility and to provide the funds to "instruct teachers how to use the [special] technology."
Representing the American Library Association (ALA) was Barbara Smith of Montgomery County (Md.) Public Libraries. She pointed out that "public libraries are the places where many people begin to use the Internet," and that Maryland, through its Sailor project, offers free electronic access to the state's 24 library systems.
Sen. Burns told how his daughter had used the Internet from her home in her postgraduate medical work. He asked Dr. Billington, for a student from Target Range, whether the Declaration of Independence is on the Internet.
"I am sure it is," the Librarian replied, adding that "the draft is also available, an even more interesting document than the final version, because it shows the comments of Benjamin Franklin and John Adams."
"We are excited about this," Sen. Burns said, "especially about bringing access to people in remote areas. I have a distance problem [in the vast state of Montana], and the only way to address that is with the Internet."
One of the students in Rep. Eshoo's district wanted to know whether "traditional libraries will go out of business."
No, Dr. Billington assured her. "There is a beautiful symphony among what is available online and what is not. The Internet is a powerful supplement for books and traditional library services -- not a replacement."
Panel 2 consisted of representatives from Yahoo!, an Internet search "engine"; the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), a nonprofit public interest group whose mission is to increase access to federal information using the Internet; and Libraries Online, a Microsoft, ALA and Technology Resource Institute initiative that is providing software and hardware to 41 library systems across the country.
When Yahoo! Manager Srinija Srinivasan mentioned the Web sites she believes provide important content on the Internet, LC's site was high on her list, as was the Learning Page, an initiative geared to the K-12 audience developed by LC's NDLP.
Christopher Hedrick of Libraries Online answered his own question "Why do we do it?" with "to bridge the information gap. Without access [for all] we will become a divided society."
Jonah Seiger of democracy.net, a project of the CDT, emphasized that "as the nation moves into the Information Age, the Internet is becoming an increasingly important means for citizens to access government. Indeed, as evidenced by the popularity of sites like [LC's] THOMAS [with 8 million 'hits' per month], and the ever increasing number of congressional and other federal Web sites, the Internet has already shown itself to be a valuable tool to increase access."
"The federal government has so far done a terrific job" in providing electronic information, Ms. Srinivasan said.
On Panel 3, Linda Price, librarian and Internet coordinator at Hine Junior High School in Southeast Washington, D.C., was joined by Mark Albertson, manager of corporate relations for Amdahl, an information technology company in Sunnyvale, Calif.
"I represent those of us who want equal access to all the information on the Internet," Ms. Price said. According to her, 90 percent of Hine's classes are "wired." "But the next step is staff training." Despite economic constraints, the school has managed to provide hypertext markup language training to students, who have mounted a Web site for the school.
Echoing Ms. Price's point on the need for training, Mr. Albertson noted how Amdahl in California has organized volunteer staff to work in the communities to show them how to make use of electronic technologies. "We found that training was a bigger problem than [the lack of] equipment."
Reps. Eshoo and White concluded the hearing by saying that they had learned many things they did not know before. And Rep. Eshoo said that not only had the session been informative, it had been "fun."