Apr. 15--If any one person stands at the center of the information revolution, it's James H. Billington. As librarian of Congress, he has moved aggressively to make the collections of the world's largest library available to the general public. To a large degree this has meant electronic dissemination.
Dr. Billington was in Dallas recently for the opening of the Dallas Public Library's exhibit ``From Clay Tablet to Compact Disc: The Story of the Book.'' He also took time to talk about the role of the Library of Congress in the nation's developing information superhighway.
Dr. Billington believes that the new information technology ``doesn't really change fundamental human equations, but it tremendously multiplies the speed and capacity of people to change and to get access to information and knowledge. ``It's kind of like somebody's trying to play the same old game of life with blue chips instead of white chips - except they are sort of super blue chips.''
Has the information superhighway been oversold? ``It may have been oversold by some of the technological determinists and the futurists who keep talking about 'This automatically creates...''' Dr. Billington says. ``It doesn't automatically create much of anything. It could create a nervous breakdown.
``Fifty years ago people were touting television as an automatic technological deliverer of culture to everyone - we would be more informed, and so on. The reality is very depressing. Even its practitioners no longer tout it as a major engine of human progress.''
Dr. Billington believes, however, that the new electronic technology has ``enormous potential for education and renewal'' and thinks it may play a vital role in contemporary society.
``For democracy really to work on a large scale, it has to be knowledge-based,'' he says. ``There has to be constant access, not only for the people who are elected to govern but for the people who elect them. More and more people have to have an ever-expanding access to more and more knowledge.''
To increase that access, the Library of Congress has established a formidable presence on the Internet. The library is available free to anyone with a computer, a modem and an Internet connection. Dr. Billington says that the library ``is now getting 300,000 hits a day.'' A ``hit'' is one electronic sign-on.
One of the most popular electronic resources is ``Thomas'' (for Thomas Jefferson), a World Wide Web facility known among computer users for ease of use. Among other things, it includes the full text of all bills introduced in the United States House and Senate, searchable by keywords or bill number. It also includes much other congressional information. Dr. Billington says there have been ``way over 2 million usages'' of Thomas so far this year.
The Library of Congress Home Page is another World Wide Web site that, among other things, allows users to view prints and photographs from the Library of Congress collections. Internet tools such as telnet, gopher, ftp and electronic mail allow access to other information and services, including the library's card catalog, copyright information, exhibits, electronic discussion groups and newsletters.
This is a warmup for an even more ambitious undertaking, the National Digital Library, which the Library of Congress is organizing in collaboration with other major institutions. This will make available historical materials and extensive collections of primary source materials through on-line access and media such as CD-ROMs. Dr. Billington says the goal is to have 5 million items available by the year 2000.
The National Digital Library will give the public access to documents, some of them in fragile condition, that have previously been seen only by scholars. For instance, Dr. Billington says, the public might want to examine ``the draft of the Declaration of Independence, where you see Madison and Jefferson and Franklin - all the great minds of the founding fathers -contending over whether it should be 'life, liberty and property' or 'life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.' You can see them crossing things out; there are little pastings on it.''
As the Library of Congress puts its material into electronic form, traditionalists need not fear the death of the book, Dr. Billington says. ``Breathe easy if you're worried that your friendly government bureaucrats are in there pulping old documents because they've produced digitized versions of them,'' he jokes.
The old material is retained. In fact, Dr. Billington believes that books are a safeguard against information control. ``Books are not dependent on something else,'' he says. ``If you're going to have on-line systems, the connections come from somewhere else, and ultimately there's a spigot that could be turned on and off.''
Dr. Billington also sees books as a preserver of language, which he believes is endangered by the electronic media.
``The survival of language is extremely important,'' he says. ``Look at MTV; listen to the gaggle of wise-guy dialogue. It has none of the style of earlier language. There's been an erosion of language from plays into movies into television. And now it's all four-letter words, it's MTV, it's rap. We're reverting to animal forms of incantation, which will ultimately lead to pack behavior.''
Computer users are being infected as well, Dr. Billington says. ``Cyberspace is encouraging a kind of incoherent multiplication of acronyms and shorthand forms of pidgin English. If you read only what you get in cyberspace, you will not be able to understand the novels of Dickins, let alone the poems of Milton, in another generation.''
Are there any other concerns about the electronic media? Dr. Billington says that, beyond the matter of data security, there is the worry that an ``information elite'' might emerge - that through lack of money or resources some may be denied access to knowledge. He says that the aim of the Library of Congress is to disseminate its information as widely and as cheaply as possible. He believes that public schools and libraries will play an important role in this.
He also sees an explosion of computer use. ``I think this technology is becoming so omnipresent and so inexpensive and so user-friendly that it's going to, of its own accord, reach many more people than many people think is now possible. It's the same thing we said about the automobile when it first came in, but the economics of it drove (its accessibility). It became pretty near universal.''
A move in Congress to expand copyright and thus limit the amount of material in the public domain is a subject of intense discussion on the Internet. Dr. Billington says ``I have to be prudent'' in discussing the matter, not only because he is an employee of Congress, but because the mission of the Library of Congress places it on both sides of the issue.
``We have an active interest in promoting as wide access as possible, on the one hand, and we also have a statutory responsibility, since the Copyright Office is a part of the Library of Congress, to enforce the copyright law and vigorously defend the rights of owners of intellectual property to a fair return.''
In fact, Dr. Billington says, the Constitution itself stands on both sides of the matter. It gives Congress special powers to protect intellectual property, but it also mandates as a congressional mission the promotion of ``useful arts and sciences'' - which seems to conflict with the idea of restricting their dissemination.
Dr. Billington says, diplomatically, that there has to be a balance of interests. But ``I do think the question of actions that further restrict access has got to be a source of special concern at this juncture.''
Internet users can find the Library of Congress at the following electronic addresses:
Thomas: http://thomas.loc.gov Library of Congress Home Page: http://www.loc.gov Library of Congress Information System: Telnet to locis.loc.gov Electronic mail forums and newsletters: Send the command ``lists'' to listproc(at)loc.gov to see what's available
LC MARVEL: Gopher tomarvel.loc.gov, port 70, or telnet to marvel.loc.gov and log in as ``marvel''
FTP: ftp.loc.gov, log in as ``anonymous'' and provide your e-mail address as the password. View or download the ``README'' file in the /pub directory for further information. END!C&3?DA-THOMAS
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