Real Benefits of the Information Superhighway: Online Treasures to Boost Education

by Dr. James H. Billington Librarian of Congress Washington, D.C. Our society, perhaps more than any other, has taken an aggressively optimistic view of impending technological change. Fifty years ago, for example, many prominent Americans predicted that television would vastly enhance education, bring culture to everyone and create a better-informed citizenry. The reality has been less impressive. Television today is not widely touted, even by its practitioners, as an engine of American progress. Our democracy and, more than ever, our economic vitality depend on the kind of active mind that print culture -- the culture of the book and of the newspaper -- has historically nurtured, and that television, feeding an essentially passive spectator habit, d'es not. A key question today is whether the new information superhighway, much discussed and variously envisaged, will reinforce the dynamism and best values of our society to a greater degree than television has done. If the information superhighway provides only more movies, home shopping, telebanking and high-priced information on demand, we will have forfeited this new technology's enormous potential. At the Library of Congress, after five years of testing, we believe our institution and other libraries can offer a brighter prospect. The National Digital Library Just in the course of things, the Library will soon be receiving and organizing more material in already digitized forms: films, music, encyclopedia, legal records, maps, scientific papers, government documents, all kinds of data. For preservation purposes, we will get more books and periodicals in digital as well as paper formats -- and we will keep both. Most important, the Library, in cooperation with the private sector, will soon be working with other major research institutions to aid them in digitizing their most important American collections for inclusion in the National Digital Library. A $2 million gift from Ameritech Corp. and Ameritech Library Services will soon begin to make this a reality. Through the Library of Congress/Ameritech National Digital Library Competition, U.S. institutions will be able to apply for grants to digitize their unique and important materials, providing access to Americans everywhere. These cornerstones of America will be as close as the nearest personal computer connected to the Internet -- in schools, libraries and homes across the country. We are only at the beginning of the National Digital Library effort. But we already provide on the Internet, free of charge, more than 27 million bibliographic records -- our "electronic card catalog" -- as well as materials from our major exhibits and 13 collections, from our American history holdings, notably Mathew Brady's Civil War photographs, African American pamphlets from the Reconstruction era, daguerreotypes, short films from the turn of the century and political speeches of prominent Americans. While others create the superhighway, we will be working with major institutions to create high-value cargo -- digitizing up to five million unique items in American history by the year 2000. After five years of testing, we believe our institution and other libraries can offer a brighter prospect. Technology will not provide any magic bullet for America's deep educational problems, and there will be plenty of difficulties -- financial, technical, copyright -- bringing this even modest amount of vitamin enrichment to schools and libraries. But the Library and other repositories have an obligation to share their treasures. We have discovered, at 44 test sites across the country, that electronic access to primary documents of our history strongly motivates children, as early as the fourth grade, to search further -- in books -- to answer the questions they ask when they get involved in the pictures, cartoons, maps, films and manuscripts that they call up on computers. Despite the claims of some technology enthusiasts, books, newspapers and magazines are not going to disappear. They are too user-friendly. Only a small fraction of humanity's vast paper record will be -- or should be -- digitized in the foreseeable future. The Library of Congress will not destroy books after digitizing them or shut down its 22 reading rooms. Librarians who serve researchers and ordinary citizens will be with us for decades, and we believe that their accumulated wisdom will increasingly be drawn upon. As I see it, libraries will be more important than ever. Open to all, they can promote learning and help all elements of our diverse society find renewal in the 21st century -- if we use the new technology to reinvigorate the culture of the book within our beleaguered schools and local libraries across America. Dr. James Billington is the librarian of Congress. The Library of Congress, Washington D.C., known as "the nation's library," is the largest library in the world, with more than 110 million items on 532 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 16 million books, 2 million recordings, 12 million photographs, 4 million maps and 46 million manuscripts. Founded in 1800 to serve the reference needs of Congress, the Library has grown into an unparalleled treasure house of knowledge and creativity.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.