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"Meeting of Frontiers" Conference

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Opening Remarks

James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress

On behalf of the Library of Congress, I wish to thank President Mark Hamilton and the University of Alaska for hosting this conference. We likewise appreciate the cooperation that the university has rendered to the Meeting of Frontiers project. I also want to welcome all of the participants, and especially our Russian guests, who have made a long trip to get here.

This conference comes at a crucial time in the development of the project, and we are looking to the conference participants for concrete ideas and suggestions about future goals that in the upcoming years can maximize the value of the project to students, teachers, librarians, scholars, and the general public.

In the two-and-a-half years since the project began, we have accomplished several important milestones. With the previous expansion of the project, publicly unveiled in May, we now have digitized a total of 4,693 library items some 88,000 images dealing with the American and Russian frontiers and the meeting of those frontiers in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest.

The Meeting of Frontiers site has gotten an enthusiastic response from users, in Russia and the United States. In the United States, it has been heavily used in the National History Day competition, the theme of which for school year 2000-2001 happens to be "The Frontier in History." And we are pleased with the positive response that the site has gotten in Russia, as witnessed, for example, by the involvement of the Open Society Institute and the Foundation for Internet Education in the project.

We're also accomplishing our goal of acquiring rare and interesting material from libraries and other repositories in Russia and the United States and integrating it into a pioneering "virtual library." The initial pilot site, launched in December 1999, contained material only from the Library of Congress. We have since added material from the Rasmuson Library here in Fairbanks, from the Russian State Library in Moscow, and the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg. And this summer, thanks in part to our cooperation with the Open Society Institute, we begin scanning operations in regional cities, starting with Novosibirsk, Omsk, Tomsk, and Barnaul.

This is a good time to review where we are headed and to develop ideas for expanding the site and improving those parts of it that need improving. John Van Oudenaren and David Nordlander will talk about this in more detail this afternoon, but let me make a few comments.

First, even with several thousand items, there are still large gaps in our historical coverage. We have superb illustrations of some regions and ethnic groups, but not of others. We need to identify outstanding collections that should be included in the site, as well as pressing themes that we have not managed to cover. We are looking forward to your concrete suggestions for collections and themes, and for your help in actually adding these materials to the site.

Second, we need to discuss whether there are better ways to interpret and present material that we are starting to have in abundance. We now have several hundred maps on Meeting of Frontiers, many extremely rare, including manuscript maps by explorers. With the "zoom" feature, these maps are very popular with school children. But what should we be doing to better present these maps and integrate them with other materials, such as books and diaries of explorers? We need concrete suggestions along these lines, and volunteers to help us develop additional narrative sections, timelines, and other explanatory material.

Other historical themes also need beefing up. In our sections on Exploration, we have a lot of material on the coasts of Alaska, but we have a lot less on the Russian trek across Siberia. We will count on our Novosibirsk colleagues in particular to suggest themes and collections for documenting this experience, which has such strong parallels on the American side.

We also would like to do more on the great Siberian rivers everything from their exploration several hundred years ago to their role in the Soviet period and beyond. Our Russian partners are doing an excellent job in suggesting railroad collections, but we want to identify more material on the great rivers.

And what about the relationship between the maps drawn by explorers Russian and American and the geographic knowledge that already resided among the native peoples? Dr. Postnikov is the great authority on this field, and we will look to him and others for how we can better link our presentations of cartographic and ethnographic material.

We also are just beginning to digitize large amounts of material from the Library's Russian Orthodox Church in Alaska collection. We hope that our colleagues from the Russian Church as well as from the academic community will be able to provide advice on themes and interactions that need to be highlighted, and for advice about other collections in Russia or elsewhere in the United States that we should try to include in Meeting of Frontiers to complement the material from the Library's own collections.

While rounding out our historical treatment of the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, we also want to include more contemporary themes and collections in Meeting of Frontiers. This could be the subject of a whole meeting in itself, but we are looking for suggestions on how we can present the Soviet and post-Soviet periods to students. It is relatively easy to identify the rarest and most striking materials from the 18th century, but what should we be looking for in the 20th or even 21st centuries that is relevant to our theme?

Some of you are involved in teaching or developing teaching materials for Russian and American students, and we are hoping for your suggestions, as well as offers to produce new sections that will round out the content on Meeting of Frontiers. Literature, popular culture, U.S.-Russian cooperation in the natural sciences, World War II, fishing, aviation, and cooperation among environmental groups are some of the newer themes that we are just beginning to cover in the project. John and David will discuss these in more detail later this afternoon and will be listening for your input.

Finally, in addition to focusing on the content of Meeting of Frontiers, we want your ideas on how best the site can be adapted to ensure that it is fully used, in Russia and the United States. I know that Mr. Ermolin and his colleagues at Yukos and the Foundation for Internet Education have concrete proposals along those lines. We look forward to hearing them, and to hearing other suggestions for making the project more useful and accessible to its intended audiences. Getting the right content is of course a key step, but we also welcome your thoughts on the kinds of supplementary materials glossaries, discussion questions, curriculum guides and so forth that might prove helpful. And we will look to some of you to take the lead in developing these kinds of materials.

In closing, let me say that I welcome this dialogue among historians, librarians, and those involved in education and outreach. We look to our historian friends to ensure that the Meeting of Frontiers project draws upon what is best in current scholarship. We look to our librarians to help us identify the collections that we should be seeking to digitize for inclusion. And we look to all of you for concrete suggestions for how we can maximize the appeal and the usefulness of Meeting of Frontiers for the broad audience that we are trying to reach.

Thank you, and once again, welcome.

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  September 21, 2010
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