Feature: December 20, 1995
The Nation's Library Goes Online
Librarian of Congress James Billington '50 Opens a Window on Our Collective Memory
By Peter Kaminsky '69
One afternoon last January, James T. Billington '50, the 13th Librarian of Congress, sat in his darkened, book-lined office. With the white dome of the Capitol towering over the scene like the brightest half moon, he surrendered to his naturally ruminative style. "My vision of the future," he said, "is my earliest vision of a big library, when I sat in the Slavic reading room of the New York Public Library between Trotskyites and monarchists, Stalinists and misplaced liberals. Had they been out on the street they would have been shooting each other, and here they were in a library reading together." He paused to deliver his point: "The pursuit of truth keeps us from the pursuit of each other."
If the currency of the Information Age is information, then no one is richer than Billington. The Library of Congress has more than 500 miles of shelves, housing 110 million items. Its treasures include the oldest printed artifact (a seventh-century Buddhist sutra), a Gutenberg Bible, Lincoln's handwritten draft of the Gettysburg Address, every recording of Duke Ellington, and the first Barbie doll. This trove of knowledge, which Billington calls "the collective memory of mankind," has been largely inaccessible unless one physically visited the Library of Congress. That began to change a year ago, when Billington unveiled his plan "to get the champagne out of the bottle" by delivering the Library's information electronically to every library, home, and business with a computer and a modem.
The Library's curators and technical specialists are working with other major libraries (including Princeton's) and the computer industry to create a National Digital Library. In collaboration with other major research institutions, the Library will use a variety of new technologies to convert five million items to digital form and launch them onto the Internet by the year 2000.
The germ of Billington's idea for the National Digital Library dates from his appointment as Librarian of Congress in 1987. "When I took this job," he recalled, "I remember coming across the fact that a convict in California's prison system is more likely to have access to a library than a student in its public schools. I felt that we as a nation were giving up on kids by the fourth or fifth grade and that the Library had to expand beyond its traditional roles. We needed to come up with a way to point students back to books. I didn't know exactly how, but I knew that we had to involve ourselves in the electronic world. I also knew that many kids had the basic keyboard and computer skills, picked up playing Nintendo."
Billington's first step in electronically unlocking the Library's storehouse was the American Memory Project. Launched in 1990, it offered 210,000 digitized items of Americana in the Library's collections to 44 elementary and secondary schools, colleges, and state and public libraries around the country. The materials, supplied on CD-ROMs, were chosen according to two main criteria, said Billington: they had to be "intrinsically important documents" and "interesting and accessible to students" (i.e., audiovisual in nature, as opposed to purely textual). The materials offered included Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady, the Detroit Publishing Company's collection of 25,000 rare photographs of American life at the turn of the century, and a film of the hanging of Leon Czolgosz, the assassin of President McKinley (this last, a high-school favorite).
Sara Riddick, who teaches English and film at David H. Hickman High School in Columbia, Missouri, found the American Memory Project valuable in getting her students interested in The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane's novel about the Civil War. "It's a pretty hard sell to students, not just because of Crane's impressionistic style but because the students have no frame of reference for the past," she said. "It's like the Civil War didn't really happen. In previous years, I had passed around reproductions of Brady's photos, and they didn't have any effect. However, once you put something on a screen, it looks like television. And anything that looks like TV is going to grab them."
Billington is a professional historian who taught Russian and European history for 12 years at Princeton, and examples like this play to his belief in the almost talismanic properties of primary source materials, which make up the bulk of the American Memory Project. "It's good to look at the Civil War photographic record before you know anything about it," he said. "You see proud people, confused people, live people, dead people. You are shown a whole kaleidoscope-not something prepackaged. You have to relate to it and make sense out of it, and you invariably have to go into books. You may get the raw data electronically, but knowledge, wisdom, and creativity-the higher rungs of the ladder-require you to go into books. You need to find other people's judgments, syntheses, and conclusions. It is a very uplifting and renewing thing."
illington traces his own love of books to his father, a largely self-educated insurance salesman. He grew up in Merion, Pennsylvania, and recalls his dad bringing home volumes from Leary's, a secondhand bookstore in nearby Philadelphia. It was a copy of War and Peace from Leary's that first sparked his interest in Russian history and culture. He began studying the Russian language while in junior high school under the tutelage of the expatriate widow of a czarist general. Billington was valedictorian at both Lower Merion High School and Princeton, where he majored in history and like his older brother, David (a professor of civil engineering), graduated with the Class of 1950. As a Rhodes scholar he earned a doctorate at Oxford. Billington served a hitch in the Army and worked briefly for CIA Director Allen W. Dulles '14 *16 before starting his academic career. He first taught at Harvard, then Princeton, where he was a member of the faculty from 1961 to 1973. He is the author, among other works, of The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture (1966), The Arts of Russia (1970), and Fire in the Minds of Men: Origins of the Revolutionary Faith (1980).
Billington left Princeton to become director of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, in Washington, D.C., a position he held until his appointment seven years ago as Librarian of Congress. Through a friendship with James A. Baker '52, he became an adviser to Ronald Reagan during the twilight years of the Soviet Union. Billington provided Reagan with folksy aphorisms that connected him with Moscow audiences, and at state dinners he sat across from Mikhail Gorbachev, engaging him with his fluent Russian and knowledge of European history. His association with Reagan's triumphant cold-war policy elevated him to the club of Respected Washington Wise Men, the sort of person that representatives enjoy inviting to The Hill to testify at committee hearings. Not surprisingly, his appointment as the nation's chief librarian sailed through Congress.
Following his arrival at the Library, Billington considered its role for the future. "We are the only universal library in the world, representing all languages," he said. "This is a sublime task that needs no justification. Still, we are not dealing with the Medicis. We're responsible to a democratically elected legislature, and they have given us the money." It was clear that to justify its budget of $350 million, the Library had to be seen as more than a congressional fact-checker cum national card catalog.
One such way was to make the Library's collections more accessible to average citizens. Within three years of taking charge, Billington had begun the American Memory Project, which a year ago moved from CD-ROMs to the Internet as one of several offerings in the fledgling National Digital Library. Many of the American Memory materials have been put online, along with thousands of items from the Library's special exhibitions on treasures from the Vatican Library and the Dead Sea scrolls. Also available are early films of New York and San Francisco and the life histories of average Americans chronicled by the Federal Writers' Project during the Depression. The Library's electronic bill of fare also includes its online catalog; the Global Legal Information Network, a database of laws in the U.S. and 14 other countries; and "Thomas" (named for Thomas Jefferson), an online version of the Congressional Record that includes the text of all bills of the 103rd and 104th Congress and the E-mail addresses of all members of Congress.
Billington's directorship coincided with a revolution in digital technology, and he was quick to take advantage of the proliferation of powerful and affordable personal computers, improvements in the machines that scan and convert images to digital form, and the growth of the Internet and the World Wide Web, which transmits images and sound as well as text. The Library's home page (accessible on the Web at http://www.loc.gov) is a well-organized oasis in the metastasizing and bewildering jumble of the Internet, and it registers more than three million log-ons a month.
True to Billington's vision, school children are among the many beneficiaries of the new system. Researchers visiting the Library to use its materials in person must be older than high-school age. But, says Herbert S. Becker, the Library's director of information-technology services, "The minute you go to a network there is no age requirement. You could be six years old or 75 years old. The Library is reaching out to a much broader community."
Newt Gingrich, the hyperbolic speaker of the House and a big supporter of Billington's efforts, calls the nascent National Digital Library no less than "the most enormous breakthrough" in communications technology since Gutenberg, one that "will take the largest collection of information in the world and make it available on the Indian reservation, in the Manhattan penthouse, and to the poorest kid in Harlem." Gingrich's enthusiasm resulted in a congressional pledge of $15 million for the digital library, provided that Billington matches it with $45 million in private donations. At $2 to $6 per page, digitization doesn't come cheap. But Billington believes that industry will be a major beneficiary of the digital library, so it ought to be willing to share the cost. To date he has raised $20 million from individuals and corporations.
A project of the magnitude and complexity of the National Digital Library must be collaborative. Last May, representatives of 15 of the nation's largest research libraries agreed to cooperate with the Library in coordinating the digital library's technology and governance. One of the signers of the agreement establishing the National Digital Library Federation was Nancy S. Klath, Princeton's acting university librarian. The federation's goals, says Klath, include assisting the Library in developing technical standards for digitization and establishing a management structure to coordinate the digital library's implementation and maintenance. Several of the federation members will be digitizing some of their own collections for inclusion in the project.
In the meantime, the Library's curators are well along in the herculean task of getting materials online. James H. Hutson, the chief of the Manuscript Division, began with selections from the collections in highest use, the papers of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, Van Buren, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, and Wilson. These manuscript collections already exist on microfilm, which enables Hutson to leapfrog a lot of grunt work that goes into moving information online. "No one had to remove staples, unfold letters, make photocopies, and restore files to their original condition," he says. "This greatly reduces the cost per item." (The papers are optically scanned, so that a person accessing them on the Web sees the actual document, not a printed copy.) Ironically, one problem confronting Hutson comes from the introduction of the typewriter and carbon paper. The Founding Fathers wrote in a handsome script, with good ink on high-quality paper, but Woodrow Wilson's typescripts include many carbons that have been stacked against other carbons for 80 years. The carbon smudges make the documents difficult to read, a condition that optical scanning scarcely improves.
Digital conversion has proceeded furthest in the Law Library. The Global Legal Information Network provides the full text of laws for legislatures around the world. Any nation wanting to condemn tribal land to build a dam (or any tribe wanting to contest that condemnation), or enforce contracts domestically and internationally, or avoid the pitfalls of past treaties, can access this fast-growing database. The new democracies of Eastern Europe, whose appetite for making law has outrun their expertise, refer to it often. Said Law Librarian Rubens Medina, "Poland has had a hemorrhage of legislation-two statutes a day for a year!"
If the Internet is to achieve its potential, content providers have to start somewhere, and the Library's information warriors have begun the task on all fronts. Billington has been captured by a grand idea. Says Gregg Riker, the director of advanced consumer technology at Microsoft, who attended a seminar on the digital library, "The gargantuan tasks of the past involved building enormous physical structures. Those of the future will involve building enormous digital structures."
Peter Kaminsky '69, a freelance writer and film maker, lives in Brooklyn, N.Y.