Contact: Matt Raymond (202) 707-0020

March 20, 2007

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington Testifies on the Library's Digital Evolution

In today's digital environment, it takes only 15 minutes to produce an amount of information equivalent to the 134 million analog (physical) materials the Library of Congress has acquired in more than two centuries. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington and other Library officials today provided testimony to the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Legislative Branch regarding how the Library is transforming itself to accommodate the digital age. The Librarian’s full testimony is available at www.loc.gov/about/librarianoffice/speeches/032007.html

Addressing subcommittee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Ranking Member Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and other members of the committee, Dr. Billington emphasized that digital materials, contrary to some assumptions, are less stable than analog materials, because digital content is easily altered, corrupted or even lost. He noted that the average Web site’s life span is between 44 and 75 days and that important materials relating to Hurricane Katrina that are used by Congress, which were once available on the Web, are no longer there.

According to Dr. Billington, the Library of Congress has been preparing for the digital age since the 1960s, when it used early technology to create and share bibliographic information in electronic form.

The Library was also one of the first cultural institutions to recognize the value of digitizing its rare and unique materials, and making them available beyond its four walls. In 1990, digitized versions of Library treasures were distributed to 44 schools and libraries across the country in a pilot called American Memory. Then, in 1994, when the Web became widely available, the materials in American Memory were made accessible online. That same year, the Library committed to placing 5 million items online by 2000 in collaboration with other major repositories.

"We have continued this process and now have more than 11 million items on our American Memory Web site," Dr. Billington testified.

He also told the panel how the success of American Memory has led to the development of other Web sites, accessible at www.loc.gov. In 2000, Congress asked the Library to lead a national strategic program to collect and preserve the burgeoning amounts of digital content that will be needed by today’s and tomorrow's generations in an increasingly competitive global environment. The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (www.digitalpreservation.gov) is building a nationwide network of partners to perform the important work of selecting and preserving critical materials at risk of loss if they are not saved now. There are nearly 70 partners in this network, with plans to soon grow to more than 100. Dr. Billington expressed hope that Congress would continue to support the program it instituted.

Another area that has been greatly affected by technology is the U.S. Copyright Office, which has been part of the Library of Congress since 1870. The office has embarked on a major reengineering program, he told the committee, to enable it to receive born-digital works (those existing only in digital format) for registration and deposit.

Because Congress often calls on the Library for information about how other nations have handled problems similar to those before U.S. lawmakers, the Global Legal Information Network was established in 1991 to make the laws of other nations available on a single Web site. Another of the Library's international programs is the World Digital Library, which was announced in late 2005.

Although the digital age is profoundly affecting the services of the Library, Dr. Billington also noted that "we must transform our workforce into a new kind of 'knowledge navigator,' able to draw equally on new digital materials and traditional artifactual items."

The Librarian said that "the Library’s basic mission of acquiring, preserving and making accessible the world's knowledge and the nation’s creativity is not changing. But the amount of information, and the explosion in the number of creators, are driving the greatest revolution in the generation and communication of knowledge since the advent of the printing press. We are proud that the Library is yielding profoundly valuable information and educational resources for the nation. We are bringing together both the historical digitized materials and the born-digital content that together provide a strategic and unique resource for the nation."

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PR 07-060
03/20/07
ISSN 0731-3527

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