Making Sense of the Digital Revolution: A View from the World’s Largest Library

TIAA/CREF Distinguished Honors Graduate Lecture

April 12, 2004

Charles V. Stanhope ’71

Director of Development, Library of Congress

Making Sense of the Digital Revolution: A View from the World’s Largest Library

We are living in a world driven by technological advancements, many of which overtake us before we realize it.

Speaking to another person at great distances used to be called “yelling” until Alexander Graham Bell gave us the telephone.  AMail@ used to conjure up images of the Pony Express rider or the reliable postman on foot – up and down our neighborhood streets – now mail beams across digital cable lines or down from telecommunication satellites. Currently, the Library of Congress has mounted a major exhibition about Winston Churchill and in it are included the hand-written notes that Churchill passed to Averill Harriman across the aisle as they flew to meet Stalin.  The military aircraft=s engines were so noisy that they couldn’t hear each other well enough to converse, so they scribbled out their strategic points on paper which they passed between themselves.  Today they would “beam” their proposals between their Palm Pilots or Blackberries.  Today, voice and written communications are in our pockets; we can read and respond to our instant messages while waiting in the ATM line or at the nearest internet cafe.  When these changes were forecast, they were science fiction – now we have adapted to them so easily that they have become second nature.  Because we can have instant access to information, we=ve begun to feel entitled to it.

Similarly, the same technological revolution that transformed our personal lives and our daily routines has greatly affected our institutions – on this campus and in its Fogler Library, in our educational system at all levels, in our government at all levels.  Indeed, the world=s governments are conducting business in vastly different ways.

I want to talk about how the National Library has been transformed by technology revolution of the 20th century and the challenges the Library faces at the dawn of the 21st century. I will tell you about the Library of Congress, in which I have worked my entire professional life.

The national government saw the value of having its own library early on.  Indeed, the very First Congress met in a library room to craft the articles of our own independence.  John Adams=s diary for September 4, 1774, describes Philadelphia=s Carpenters= Hall which contained a “Chamber where is an excellent Library.”  Since John Adams signed the law establishing the Library of Congress in 1800, it has become the greatest library ever assembled since the library in ancient Alexandria, an achievement in which all Americans should take pride.

The nation=s oldest federal cultural institution, the Library of Congress has survived three fires.  After the first fire set by the British when the Library was in the Capitol building, in August 1814, Thomas Jefferson sold his own, highly respected, personal library of 6,487 volumes to the country for $23,950.  (There were votes against this bill.)

Jefferson was a man of very diverse interests.  His collection of books covered all fields of knowledge, which he classified as Memory, Reason and Imagination, and many of them were in foreign languages.  The third president=s belief in the necessity for a universal library – one that overlooks no subject area – is still the basis on which the Library of Congress builds its unrivaled collections.

Today, 204 years later, LC=s collections contain over 128 million items – books, (a Bible printed by Johannes Gutenberg – one of only three perfect copies on vellum in the world; the first book printed in America – the Bay Psalm Book of hymns, printed in 1640), maps, (a 1507 map that has been called AAmerica=s birth certificate,@ because it is the first document to give the name AAmerica@ to the New World; the map Lewis and Clark took with them to explore the Louisiana Purchase, and the map they brought back changing what we thought we knew about the vast American West), manuscripts, (the papers of 23 U. S. Presidents, and Thomas Jefferson>s Draft of the Declaration of Independence and two copies in Abraham Lincoln=s hand of one of the most remarkable speeches ever delivered – the Gettysburg Address).

Did I mention that we also have the papers of such contemporary figures as Thurgood Marshall, Edna St. Vincent Millay, Clare Boothe Luce, Bob Hope and Harry Houdini? But, these are just a few of the more than 57 million manuscripts in the Library.

There is music, (works of American masters Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland and George and Ira Gershwin, as well as those of classical giants such as Beethoven, Bach and Brahms), photographs, (the documentary photographs of the Farm Security Administration, the highlight of which is one of the most famous images ever captured on film – Dorothea Lange=s AMigrant Mother,@ a powerfully poignant portrait of a destitute farm worker and her children.  Everyone has seen the exquisite works by Ansel Adams of this nation=s natural beauty, but have you seen his photographs of the Japanese internment camps?  The Library of Congress has these in its collections of more than 12 million photographs).

We have one of the world=s largest film and television archives, and we preserve those fragile materials so that they can be enjoyed by future generations.  When Fred Ott, an assistant to Thomas Edison, sneezed in 1889 and it was caught on film, he likely never realized that his action was to become the world=s most historic sneeze. This photographic recording of something we do without even thinking ended up becoming the first motion picture ever submitted for copyright protection and the Library has restored this and thousands of other important films.  These films and television classics are screened for free in our Mary Pickford Theater.

Because our primary mission is to serve the U. S. Congress, within the world=s largest library is the world=s largest law library.

The Library of Congress contains materials in over 460 languages and, in some instances, we have stronger collections than in the native country because of political reasons or due to natural disasters.  Researchers travel to our three buildings on Capitol Hill to use these unparalleled collections from across the country and around the world.  And they are granted access to these materials in one of the most open national libraries in the world.

Yet, contrary to popular myth, even though we do have more than 128 million items, including nearly 30 million books, we don=t have them all.

More than 30,000 items each working day pour into what some refer to as the Aworld=s largest in-box@ – a number that is staggering in its relentlessness.  From these 30,000 things, subject specialists and other Library staff choose about 10,000 for the permanent collections.  The others are donated to other libraries or exchanged with other institutions world-wide –for materials that the Library requires.

The U. S. Copyright Office is part of the Library.  Last year, the office handled more than one-half million copyright registrations.  Because two copies of every work are submitted with each copyright registration, the copyright system is the primary acquisition method for our English language materials.

The Library also has six overseas offices in Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Nairobi, Islamabad, New Delhi, and Jakarta, where we are acquiring, cataloging and preserving elusive research materials in areas where conventional acquisitions methods are ineffective.

Another Library department, the Congressional Research Service, is providing our lawmakers independent, unbiased analysis of public policy initiatives, using the rich resources of the collections.

In addition to the Library=s role as a research facility, we conduct many national programs, beyond providing bibliographic and cataloging information to the nation=s publishers and libraries.  Since 1931, we have directed a national program to provide reading materials – books, magazines, music scores and texts – in raised characters and sound recordings for blind and physically disabled readers in this country and for such challenged U. S. citizens living abroad.

To highlight the critical needs to save historically important sound and film materials, we annually select 50 motion pictures and 50 sound recordings for a national registry.  Some of the films on the National Film Registry, such as ACasablanca,@ AThe Godfather,@ ACitizen Kane,@ APsycho,@ and AThe Philadelphia Story,@ are joined by cult classics such as ANight of the Living Dead,@ AReturn of the Seacaucus 7,@ and AThe Thing From Another Planet.@

These films are as diverse as the Americans who made them.

This year=s National Recording Registry, for the first time, names a foreign recording, ASgt. Pepper=s Lonely Hearts Club Band,@ that immortal recording by the Beatles that, believe it or not, will be 40 years old in three short years and will still be enjoyed 400 years from now, thanks to its preservation and selection for the Recording Registry.  In 2002, for the first Sound Registry selections, the Jesse Walter Fewkes field recordings of the Passamaquoddy Indians from 1890 were selected and added to the registry.  Fewkes’s cylinder recordings, made in Calais, Maine, are considered to be the first ethnographic recordings made “in the field,” as well as the first recordings of Native American music.

Currently, the Veterans= History Project in the Library=s American Folklife Center is mobilizing thousands of volunteers and family members to record the oral histories of America=s veterans, before the stories of the “greatest generation” are lost forever.

Your national library is a national treasure.

But, like libraries and cultural institutions at all levels, the Library of Congress has been transformed by 20th century technology.  The work processes of the Library have been dramatically re-engineered, as they have been throughout the American workplace.  And, because of the power of the Internet to deliver information at the click of a mouse – the Library has digitized more than 8.5 million items from its collections.  You no longer have to come to Capitol Hill to see (let alone use for research purposes) these selected items.  Online, there=s Jefferson=s Draft of the Declaration, in which you can see how John Adams and Benjamin Franklin edited it – in their own hands – and amended to become birth certificate of the nation as we know it today.  Or Lincoln=s Gettysburg Address, which may be the most eloquent 240 words ever set to paper.  Or to see why AMigrant Mother@ has become an iconic photograph.  Or to hear the voices of former slaves as they tell their tales of horrible injustice as only those who have suffered under it could do.  Or to watch Fred Ott and the sneeze that can now be seen A>round the world.@  Now, you can see and hear this and so much more at your PC or “wi-fi” linked laptop and you can see it – virtually – anywhere.

The Library continues to serve researchers in its 21 reading rooms on Capitol Hill – but we are serving millions more with our award-winning website.

The flagship of www.loc.gov is American Memory – an online treasure house of the most important, rare and sometimes unique materials that the Library has been collecting and preserving for more than 200 years.

We often hear from some of the millions of users of these materials, who say they are happy to see their tax dollars spent on such an important national educational resource.  We also know from users – many are students and teachers – that these primary source materials are used in classrooms nationwide to bring a dimension to the study of history.  These materials bring history alive because they are the stuff of history.

In 1995, we created an authoritative website, THOMAS (named for Thomas Jefferson) by which citizens can track every legislative initiative – and every amendment and word change – just as you can see Adams and Franklin=s edits of Jefferson=s draft – introduced in the Congress.

We are building bi-national and bi-lingual websites linking digital resources from the Library with large and small collections in Russia, Spain, the Netherlands, and Brazil (with other countries to follow) to contribute to cross-cultural understanding, and, perhaps, to stimulate increased interest in foreign language learning.

We are no longer only accessible to those who can make the trip to Capitol Hill.  We have built a Alibrary without walls@ that is open 24-7 to every U. S. citizen.

In 2000, to celebrate the Bicentennial of the Library, we and the U. S. Congress sponsored a nation-wide project called ALocal Legacies.@ Citizens across the country documented their unique history, culture and folkways, and this documentation is now part of the permanent collection of our American Folklife Center, the nation=s largest repository of American folklife materials.

The Local Legacy projects submitted by Maine were: a photographic exhibit of 20 panels on the basketry tradition of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Maliseet tribes of the state.  Even the preparation of bean-hole beans is now a Local Legacy.  This traditional foodway that Maine lumberjacks borrowed and adapted from Native American practices was preserved by the Maine Folklife Center at the Common Ground Country Fair in Unity, and it is now at the Library.  The preservation of these unique American customs will help keep these traditions alive.

The Library of Congress has made, with the generous help of the private sector a substantial investment in building the largest repository of high-quality, non-commercial materials on the Internet.  Our website handles almost 3 billion hits annually.

But, these digital materials, by and large, are new generations of old information transmitters.  We have taken digital pictures of the artifact that contains the information we want to share and made those images freely accessible on the web.  Now, at the dawn of the 21st century, the Library of Congress and every library and archive, is challenged to accommodate the “artifacts” of the digital information explosion and the information that is Aborn digital.@  It has been predicted that, by 2007, the number of digital materials will be too vast to reasonably calculate.

We are at a critical juncture as we move from “the tested and trustworthy information infrastructure for analog resources to the promising, yet fragile, untested and potentially insecure digital one.”  How do we identify, select, organize, make accessible and preserve the vast digital files that materialize when we “click” our mouse?

Libraries have centuries of experience in acquiring and organizing for use “fixed” expressions of human creativity.  As institutions in society, libraries have earned an honored place as a “trusted agent” where inquiring minds go to grow and create.  In today=s digital publishing world, inquiring minds more readily – and perhaps more easily – go to the vast web of Internet information, query a search engine and begin to sort through their results.

Libraries are now challenged to maintain their “trusted agent” status as they, too, seek to harvest appropriately and effectively from the dynamic and exponentially growing digital information available free, or by subscription or licensing agreement.  There are e-books and e-journals, digital music, digital television, digital sound and video, and web sites.

Each of these categories poses significant issues for libraries, especially in terms of access and preservation.  The market forces seeking compensation for the creative investment made in these formats are causing a serious re-examination of many concepts, such as intellectual property, copyright protection, fair use, and best edition.  We thought we had more or less successfully established these definitions when we were only dealing with the “traditional” formats.  We knew then when a book or magazine is “published@ when it is fixed in a tangible medium.  This is not as clear, however, when an e-book is accessed from a publisher – downloaded to a hand-held device, or licensed for a time-limited use by an individual or an educational institution.

Often, access fees depend on whether the requestor is an individual, a non-profit, or an educational or commercial entity.  And, remember that each of us in the marketplace – individual, educational or non-profit institution, or commercial enterprise – is dealing with these costs in times when operating budgets are shrinking.

Let=s just examine for a moment the phenomenon of web sites.  Anyone, equipped and skilled, can “publish” a website.  It is much easier than the “traditional” means of having to secure a publisher who determines whether something is worthy of being given a more permanent status.  As of January 2002, there were an estimated 550 billion public pages, and it is said that the web grows by 7 million pages a day.  Likewise, websites die rapidly, too:

44 percent of sites available in 1998 were gone by 1999.  We know, for example, that the websites (and their permutations) of the candidates in the 1996 national elections are forever lost.  Someone wanting to study those elections in the future will be missing a very important – and primary – piece of history.  This why the Library has collected the websites from the 2000 elections.  And we have collected websites and other digital materials related to the tragedies of September 11, 2001.

Preserving what we think is worth saving from the vast digital universe of materials is a task exponentially more vast and vexing than for the analog world, which is small by comparison.  Yet, libraries retain the responsibility to collect and preserve web content for individual institutional reasons and for cultural memory.  Libraries have a long tradition of experience in selecting items of long-term cultural and research value, and this responsibility grows vaster when selecting materials from the web.  No one library, not even the Library of Congress, can perform this function alone. It will take numerous and dynamic collaborations to capture and preserve culturally and intellectually important Web content.

In December 2000, the Congress gave the Library a leadership role in a national effort to address issues of digital preservation and access, leading to broad collaboration among repositories, publishers, the creative community and users.  As the Library served as an honest broker to set cataloging standards at the beginning of the 20th century, it has been charged to mobilize the stakeholders in this complex arena at the beginning of the 21st.

$98 million Federal dollars are available, $75 million of which must be matched by contributions from non-federal sources.  The first grants to collaborators in this effort are about to be announced and they will focus on the selection and collection development of digital assets, many of which are at risk of being lost if they are not now preserved.

The grants will support practical applications as well as basic research, but they are just the first steps in a long journey to address the complex issues we face in this digital information age.

As our daily lives as information consumers have changed, as our institutions face the challenges of the digital information world, so has the profession of librarian or information technologist begun a transformation. To pursue the several issues I have touched on – intellectual property, selection and organization, access and preservation – the next generation of librarians must be trained with the skills to lead the profession, the educational institutions and the nation forward in this Information Age. The ever-expanding Web (which has grown by about 145,000 pages in just the time I have been speaking) is delivering the knowledge of the world directly to our computer desktops.  Knowledge management is becoming key to educational, social and commercial growth.  Librarians, as caretakers of our vast and expanding information universe, are becoming Knowledge Navigators, not just necessary, but key to our journey through this electronic world.  There may be new skill sets required, new competencies to develop in order to adapt to the continually swift pace of technological change.  There is already a legislative proposal at the Federal level to develop a program to recruit and train the next generation of librarians.  This initiative acknowledges that the profession is critical for the country to maintain its leadership role in the world and to succeed in the global marketplace.

Indeed, no matter what discipline you may be pursuing as a student or educator, on this campus now and for the rest of your life-long learning days, you will be information consumers and you have been transformed into Knowledge Navigators by the digital revolution.  We are all in this together.

We think of Thomas Jefferson as the spiritual founder of the Library of Congress, not only for the collections from his library that formed the seed of the present-day Library, but also for the principles, which he stated so eloquently, that have guided us for more than 200 years.

The Library of Congress, as it has for the past two centuries, plans to continue to lead and collaborate with the nation=s libraries and other repositories to make sense of this digital information explosion.  We want to ensure that the generations who follow us will have the essential access to knowledge that those who preceded us – and those of you listening to me today – enjoy.