Library of Congress wants to go digital

April 19, 1993|By Christian Science Monitor

WASHINGTON -- The Library of Congress is gearing up for an information revolution.

The "goal is establishing a library without walls," proclaims Jacqueline Hess, the director of the Library of Congress's National Demonstration Lab.

The library -- the largest in the world -- eventually wants to put much, if not all, of the 100 million items in its collection into digital, or computer, form. This could allow browsing through the library's stacks from afar by way of powerful information networks.

Once today's data networks develop into the "data superhighways" of tomorrow -- a concept backed by the Clinton administration -- Library of Congress multimedia packages could be as easily received from afar as cable TV is today.

The library also is seeking the authority from Congress to charge access fees to recoup some of the expense of delivering new electronic services. Sen. Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., has introduced a bill on the library's behalf that would replace a 1902 law.

But as the Library of Congress becomes more entrepreneurial, businesses involved in distributing information digitally grow concerned. The Library of Congress has more material on hand than any other source in the country. Many sellers of information services worry it could corner the market.

"The impact of what the Library of Congress does in the marketplace has to be considered," says Steve Metalitz, a vice president for the trade group, The Information Industry Association.

"We want to see a diversity of sources for information based on the collections in the library," Mr. Metalitz added. His is a plea for the private sector to get a piece of the action as the Library of Congress increasingly computerizes its collections.

The library is not opposed to such arrangements. It has a long history of joint ventures in more traditional formats -- including books, records and films.

Users of Internet -- the most widely used data highways today -- already can get access to a very limited part of the Library of Congress's collections. These selections include translations of documents from the archives of the former Soviet Union, bibliographic material, research guides and even pictures from an exhibition of treasures from the Vatican.

As part of its thrust into new technologies, the library has already started linking films, videos, and sound recordings into computerized multimedia packages.

Fully computerizing a collection as large as the Library of Congress is an immensely expensive undertaking. Converting just a single page of printed text currently costs $2 to $3.

The seed work, up to now, has been funded with a combination of federal appropriations and donations from such companies as GTE, International Business Machines, Microsoft, NYNEX, and Pioneer Electronics.

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