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April 6, 1993

Dr. Billington Tells Congress the Importance of Local Public Libraries to America's Electronic Future

The new electronic age makes the nation's 15,000 public libraries "more, rather than less, important to the progress of the United States in the 21st Century," James H. Billington, Librarian of Congress, told Congress today.

Dr. Billington testified before the Joint Committee on the Library, chaired by Rep. Charlie Rose (D., N.C.), along with other witnesses, including Dr. Marilyn Miller, president of the American Library Association, on the "state of our nation's libraries."

Citing cutbacks in locally financed public libraries, Dr. Billington warned that Americans are "in serious danger of eroding a unique legacy laboriously created by our forebears" even as public demands for modern library services increase and two-thirds of all Americans use a library in the course of a year.

Dr. Billington noted that some techno-pundits have argued that the community library and even the book are doomed by electronics to obsolescence. Not so, he said. Electronic on-line information "will vastly supplement not destroy the book," he said.

Moreover, he said, converting existing books to be put on-line is slow and expensive (text alone can cost $2 to $3 per page). Thus, for the foreseeable future, most of the vast existing paper record of the human past seems likely to remain on paper in libraries. Electronic entertainment/educational products and "pure" information services--supplying legal data, news, technical papers, etc.--are likely to remain too expensive or too specialized for all but a small percentage of the nation's individual consumers.

"There could emerge two classes of Americans: information 'haves' and 'have-nots'", he said. "That is where the public library comes in" -- not only preserving the paper record but also serving as local distributor for many, if not all, information services, for free or for modest fees, depending on arrangements with the supplier. Such operations are already underway in major research libraries and some public libraries. Librarians will assess the utility and user-friendliness of each information service, take the best, and act as knowledge navigators, saving users' time and money.

As the President and Congress look to the electronic future and the country's needs, Dr. Billington said, they should pay special attention to the public libraries. Linked by new technology to one another, to university libraries, and to the Library of Congress, these local libraries, "unpublicized yet deeply cherished and heavily used in thousands of communities" can play a vital role in the coming Age of Information.

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PR 93-057
ISSN 0731-3527

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