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Bicentennial Conference  on 
        Bibliographic Control for the New Millenium: Confronting the Challenges of Networked 
        Resources and the Web
sponsored by the Library of Congress Cataloging Directorate

Panel Chair Briefs Staff on NAS Report

By Gail Fineberg

The chairman of a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee, in a Library staff briefing on Monday, Sept. 25, underscored the urgency of capturing, archiving, preserving, and making accessible digital materials before they vanish from the Internet forever.

"It is really shocking how much digital information, in the ten years it has become a medium of communication, is disappearing because no one is archiving it, setting it aside," said James J. O'Donnell, chairman of the NAS Committee on an Information Technology Strategy for the Library of Congress, which issued the July 26 report, "LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress."

The report contained some 55 recommendations outlining ways in which the Library could lead a collaborative effort of the world's libraries to seize electronic information that is "born digital"-information that exists in no other format.

"It is time and past time for the great libraries of the world to begin stepping up to this responsibility and begin the library of the future we believe can be made," O'Donnell told more than 450 staffers seated in the Coolidge Auditorium.

During his introduction of O'Donnell, Deputy Librarian Donald L. Scott reaffirmed the Library's goal of completing its response to the report by Jan. 1, 2001.

A classics scholar and vice provost, Office of Information Systems and Computing, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, O'Donnell conveyed the spirit with which the 25-member NAS committee reviewed the Library-at the invitation of Dr. Billington-and delivered its report.

He said the "sense of the richness of the institution, the richness of its past . . . animated our group to try to think hard and advise well," about what the Library should do to leave an equally rich and valuable legacy for Americans in the years to come.

He said the report was not presented as something in which every single detail should be adhered to "but rather as strategic advice, advice that we make with the force of our professional, personal expertise, and with great love and respect for this institution, its past achievements, and its possibilities."

O'Donnell structured his talk the same way he said the NAS committee conducted its Library review, by dealing first with the most tactical and technical recommendations and then progressing to the most strategic. "The strategic initiatives that we recommend are the heart and soul of the conversation we think needs to be had now, in and with the Library, with producers of information from around the world, with other libraries from around the world, and with other users who depend on the Libraries of the world as providers of information," he said


O'Donnell said the committee looked at technology infrastructure, planning, and need at the Library. Placing those recommendations in the last chapter of the report "signals how far we have come with regard to technology in the American and world society.

"There is plenty of technology out there," he said. "There is technology to do things that our grandparents literally never dreamed of, that we never dreamed of five years ago."

He said the committee made some "straight-forward" recommendations to LC with regard to networking, computer security, a digital depository. "The technology in many respects is the simplest and easiest part of what you have to deal with-I didn't say cheapest, I said simplest and easiest-and the biggest challenge that technology will bring is that it will continue to change, week in and week out."

Format boundaries will begin to blur, he said, as information technologies-telephone, computer data, videos-converge on a single platform.

Human Resources

O'Donnell said the committee thought it was important to look at human resources: "A library is a collection of information. But if it is only a collection of information and no people, it's a mausoleum, it's a tomb.

"The thing that makes a library a library is the staff of people who animate it and keep it alive and keep it fresh and keep it current, who know what's there, and who mediate information as efficiently as possible to all those who come to use it," O'Donnell said.

"We have been impressed both by the size and professionalism and commitment of the staff we have met here-on every level; we have talked to staff ranging from the Librarian to . . .members of the security forces who stand watch at the doors," he said. "We have been impressed by staff . . . commitment to the organization, by their desire to deliver the best possible service."

Particularly in a time of changing technological demand, he said, "it is important that the staff be trained, and it is important that positions be flexibly designed so the correct skills will be brought to bear on the right paths at the right moment."

If the Library and like organizations are to survive, he said, they must be able to compete with the private sector for the best people with technical skills and keep them adequately challenged and compensated.

Organization and Management

In his discussion of the committee's recommendations on organization management in relation to the deployment of information technology within LC, O'Donnell said the committee emphasized the role of Information Technology Services as a service organization. "We make recommendations regarding ways to make its budgeting clearer and more open, to make clear the matrix of delivery of services to the organization, so that ITS knows what is expected of it, so others may know what is expected of ITS. We suggested LC move forward with cross-Library budgeting . . . that will bring together the priorities of the institution and stress those priorities as the chief priorities, using the money to buy from ITS."

O'Donnell noted that the committee recommended a new position of deputy librarian for strategic initiatives, which, he emphasized, "should not be read as code for deputy librarian for technology, or deputy librarian for technology issues.

"The challenges facing the Library every day, first and foremost, are library challenges. They need to be addressed strategically for the good of the whole collection of the library, present and future," O'Donnell said. "This means integrating traditional materials as well as new forms of materials-paper with digits. This means having a broad, strategic perspective about libraries in general, and a broad perspective of this whole Library, all its subsidiaries . . . and then being able to know the technology and develop the technology well enough to bring together people in the Library to take the strategic initiatives for the Library as a whole- and make the Library the great resource that it is, still-15 and 100 years from now."

O'Donnell described the composition and work of two advisory groups to support the "strategic center." One, an internal advisory group, the ITVSRP-Information Technology, Vision, Strategy, Research, and Planning Group-would represent all the major service units of the Library, "so that even at the level of vision and planning, people who don't normally think they have day- to-day responsibility to each other, are talking to each other, and learning from each other, and looking at possibilities for interaction and collaboration in ways that have not been there before," O'Donnell said.

"It has been our strong sense that the Library came together as a collection of organizations, some of them with different reporting lines. . . . The alignment of the individual service units of the Library reflects well the technology and the economics of information and information use in the print/early-anatomic age. The kind of initiatives that will be necessary in the years to come will cross over those boundaries to such an extent those boundaries will begin to disappear," O'Donnell said.

"It is not appropriate to talk about reorganization of those boundary lines now, but it is appropriate to talk about strengthening the essentials of strategic vision and planning that cause those service units to think together, about how they can work together, to make the vision possible," he said.

The committee also recommended a Technical Advisory Board, consisting of individuals from outside the Library. O'Donnell said the idea is to bring together "the kind of people the Library probably couldn't afford to pay, in its wildest dreams, people with billions of dollars in their pockets, but who on the other hand, would be honored to be asked to come and advise the Library for nothing. If you can get that kind of talent for nothing, you are a fool not to take advantage of it.

"We think this is a timely moment to build such a group, or groups of people," whose role would be to envision the Library's future, discern early technology, and provide some benchmarks as to how the Library is doing against the rest of the library community and the information community around the world, O'Donnell said.

Digital Challenge

"The coming of digital content into the traditional library is the great and earth-shaking transformation of the library today," he said, adding that is the "biggest challenge coming toward the Library."

Noting that the committee had devoted the first half of its report to the way the Library seems to handle "born-digital" content, O'Donnell first defined digital artifacts, which are representatives of and surrogates for traditional library materials. For example, a digital artifact may be a scanned image of an original manuscript or traditional text that has been transformed into searchable electronic text.

"The National Digital Library Program in the Library has done great work, in the last few years, in building a collection of those kinds of transformed digital archives out of the riches of the unique collections of the Library of Congress," O'Donnell said.

"Where we see the need in the next few years is to concentrate on born-digital information, information that doesn't come, ever, in printed form, which only exists electronically. Some of it exists electronically on specific media that can be purchased and brought into the building, like CD-ROM discs; that's the easy stuff to handle. Harder stuff to handle is the flood of information out there on the Internet, some of which is of extraordinarily low value, some of which is not traditional material for a library collection. . . .

"Some stuff out on the internet is culturally valuable information of low quality," he continued. "That is to say, someone somewhere should be collecting some of the political trash, the sexual trash, the social trash . . . as cultural information and cultural history about America in the late 1990s. That isn't the kind of material you want to put on the new bookshelves in the front of your library. But there is the same amount of cultural responsibility to recognize, in a broad way, American creativity for good and for ill . . . to record that for other generations to know, to know our history and to know ourselves better."

Illustrating how important electronic-only information is, O'Donnell recounted seeing an Asian Division collection of ephemeral material relating to the Tiennaman Square massacre and uprising in 1989-"pamphlets, flyers, materials, which if not collected by a great library, would disappear or vanish into a private collection. The history of what happened in Tiennaman in 1989 is a little better known because the Library of Congress has brought together that kind of fleeting material, material which the [Chinese government] would be very glad to see disappear completely. . . .

"If the next Tiennaman revolt started today. . . , a much greater percentage of information created around that revolt would be electronic information. There would be e-mails and Web sites on all kinds of rogue servers-a challenge to the librarians of the next generation to hang on to it, organize it, and make use of it . . . ," O'Donnell said.

"There is now digital-only material, published only on the Internet, which is part of the serious collection of American and world creativity." He said he stumbled onto an electronic journal published by a central European relief organization in Hungary or Czechoslovakia. "It is an exciting, interesting journal that I wouldn't have a chance to read otherwise. It exists so far as I know only in electronic form," he said.

In the United States, he said, the Library of Congress has an advantage. "The law stipulates the deposit of published material in the United States with the Library of Congress. . . . Our recommendation in the report talks about the ways in which that process of accepting deposit and providing registration can increasingly be used by producers of [digital] information . . . as the fastest way into the Library of Congress's collection, to be made accessible to Library of Congress users. There are almost infinite issues, both technical and legal and social. . . , but the possibility is an exciting one that needs to be pursued.

"We recommend strongly that the Copyright Office needs to move rapidly to a production system that can handle a much more robust stream of registration requests, and the Copyright Office needs to be able to accept digital deposits, the deposit of digital archives . . . .That intake and information need to be backed up by strategies for preservation, strategies for access, strategies for indexing and cataloging, or metadata, so called," O'Donnell said.

He said the Library needs to integrate digital content as much as possible with traditional materials, which he said is possible with the Integrated Library System, so that scholars coming in the door don't need to ask, "Am I using paper material or digital material today?" "They need to be able to come in the door and say, 'I need to know about central European developments in 1990. What have you got?' They need to be pointed at paper or at electronic information as it is appropriate," O'Donnell said.

No one library can do all this by itself, he said. "There needs to be collaboration well beyond the walls of the Library of Congress. We've gone around the world; we've talked to national libraries in several countries as well as other scholars and users. We found [support] for building partnerships that will enable libraries in different parts of the world . . . to deal with different parts of the challenge of born-digital information, so that no one institution needs to face the budgetary and resource challenges of creating a single global virtual library or even a single national virtual library, but rather a construct that can enfold the collaboration of many libraries and many publishers around the world. . . ."

In response to LC staff questions about acquiring foreign digital materials and the cost of changing technologies, O'Donnell said the Library should lead a drive for international standards to facilitate data exchange and accessibility over time.

Asked about the need for more flexible personnel policies, O'Donnell responded that it is "a lot cheaper and smarter to take this group of people and teach them new skills than it is to go out and hire new people."

To a staffer who asked whether it wouldn't be smarter to hire younger people already conversant with new technologies, O'Donnell said motivation is the key to learning new skills at any age. "The challenge to management is to challenge the staff, to excite them," he said.

Thanking O'Donnell and his committee for their work, Dr. Billington emphasized that the Library had requested the study by an external, independent group. "We wanted a fresh look," he said.

Describing the NAS document as one of the best written reports he had ever seen, Dr. Billington said the report was "refreshing, exciting, and stimulating."

O'Donnell introduced two other committee members, Margaret Hedstrom, a national expert on digital preservation at the University of Michigan, and Mary Ellen Zurko, of Iris Associates; and the committee's study director and program officer, Alan S. Inouye. He also thanked Chief of Staff Jo Ann Jenkins, her special assistant Virginia Sorkin, and all of the Library staff members interviewed for their cooperation.

Library of Congress
October 29, 2000
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