Internet time capsule

3 February 2007

In contrast to Wednesday’s Library of Congress announcement, the following highlights significant cultural change in not quite seven years. Let me disclaim up front by saying I really appreciate the organizational attitude change apparent since the following was reported, and imply no criticism of the Library or Librarian of Congress.

Dr Billington today

(April 15, 2000 – Tech Law Journal) The Librarian of Congress, James Billington, gave an address at the National Press Club on Friday, April 14, on the role of the Library of Congress in the Information Age. He harshly criticized the Internet, and stated that the Library will not digitize books. However, the Library has plans to expand its web publication of other materials.

“So far, the Internet seems to be largely amplifying the worst features of television’s preoccupation with sex and violence, semi-literate chatter, shortened attention spans, and near-total subservience to commercial marketing,” said Billington.

Billington said that the Library of Congress has plans to unveil a new web site. “We hope it will realize one of the earliest promises of the Internet: to put the Library of Congress at the fingertips of every boy and girl where they live.”

But then he followed up by stating the “we are not digitizing books, but bringing hitherto little used, specially formatted materials like maps and recordings …” He added that the new web site “is not replacing our traditional print library.”

He said that the Library of Congress now has 28 Million items in its print collection, and 119 Million items in all formats. Its web site currently contains 3 million primary documents, including drafts of the Gettysburg Address, 19th Century baseball cards, and forgotten music.

Billington elaborated on why the Library will not put books online during the question and answer session. “The rationale is two fold. We have so much special format material that nobody has seen that it is more important to get those out.” He added that the Library is more concerned with “rare pamphlets” than “full books”.

“Secondly, behind this … is an implicit belief [that books] are not going to be replaced, and should not be replaced.”

“There is a difference between turning pages and scrolling down,” he said. “There is something about a book that should inspire a certain presumption of reverence.”

“We should be very hesitant … that you are going to get everything you want electronically.”

“You don’t want to be one of those mindless futurists,” said Billington, “who sit in front of a lonely screen.”

“It is isolating. It is a lonely thing.” In contrast, “libraries are places, a community thing.”

“It is dangerous to promote the illusion that you can get anything you want by sitting in front of a computer screen.” He described this as “arrogance” and “hubris”.

He added that while electronic books may succeed commercially, they are “seductive.”

The LoC website now makes available more than 7.5 million digital objects from its American Memory site alone, and the new project looks to add thousands. To be fair, the Library is still not talking about digitizing books generally, but I’d bet Dr. Billington feels slightly differently about the Web–or at least would be embarrased to say some of these things–today.

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