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Electronic Content and Civilization's Discontent

Saturday, January 1, 1994


Electronic Content and Civilization's Discontent

By James H. Billington
Sequence: Volume 29, Number 5

Release Date: September/October 1994

It was not until James Billington came to the Library of Congress six
years ago as the 13th Librarian of Congress that interest was sparked in
the role that electronic media should play in the library's future. Dr.
Billington set out on a special mission both to turn the esteemed
institution into a first-class facility for scholars and to make its
priceless contents more accessible to the public at large. An essential
part of the goal he set for himself was to bring the library
technologically up-to-date.

Far more than we have ever understood, human civilization is shaped and
limited by the way people communicate. Take the invention of the
alphabet in Korea in the second millennium B.C. It enabled a small
nation to establish its own cultural identity and sustain to this day an
independence from Imperial China, with its inaccessible and elitist
language of ideograms. The introduction of vowels by the Greeks in the
second millennium B.C. turned words from sound events into symbolic
vehicles for abstract, analytical thought. The invention of the printed
book at the dawn of the modern age opened the way for humanism and
individual critical thinking on a wide scale. It helped bring into being
in the new world of North America something that no one previously had
ever thought possible: democracy in a multicultural context on a
continental scale.

The Legacy of Literacy

The United States is the first great world power whose entire history
has unfolded during the age of print and whose modern destiny has been
to incorporate into its population significant numbers of people from
all over the world. Our nation has been unified not by an established
religion or ethnicity, as have most nations, but by shared laws and
institutions and, more than we realize, by a common language and a print
culture made democratically accessible through relatively inexpensive
systems of education and publication.

Enlightened capitalism and an enlightened Congress had combined by the
early years of the 20th century to make knowledge more accessible than
it had ever been in any human civilization. Industrialist Andrew
Carnegie's benefaction created public libraries in most major cities of
America. Sen. Justin Morrill's legislation created new systems of state
universities built around research libraries. At the dawn of the
century, the Library of Congress began producing catalog cards for all
libraries large and small across the nation, thus absorbing at the
federal level most of a cost far greater to libraries than the cost of
books themselves.

All of the foregoing has been dramatically changed by the latest
revolution in the way people communicate: the new electronic culture of
audiovisual media and instantaneous data transmission. In 1930, Sigmund
Freud, in his last major treatise on human culture, Civilization and Its
Discontents, suggested that enlightenment was incurably threatened by
irrational forces beneath the surface. He was writing in Europe at the
end of the age of print. He would live to see a fellow Austrian, Adolf
Hitler, use radio and cinema to destroy the leading book culture of
Europe and drive Freud to exile in England, his papers being sent on to

Content versus Contentment

Reflecting on Freud's dark prognosis 65 years ago for a Europe that was
seemingly enlightened but actually on the verge of a cultural nightmare,
I fear that we may not be discontent enough, in our somewhat complacent
society, and that technological changes to which we often unconsciously
look for deliverance may, if present trends continue, make the problems
worse rather than better. In short, I fear we are today a little too
content about a civilization with too little content.

Overall literacy is declining in America, and the new electronic modes
of communication, despite all their glorious potential for the
enhancement of our troubled civilization, may in actuality be hastening
our decline. U.S. society, perhaps more than any other, has taken an
aggressively optimistic view of impending technological change. So it
was with television almost 50 years ago: the picture tube would improve
education, bring culture and the arts to everyone, and create a better
informed, more engaged citizenry. The literature actually said that. The
reality, as measured by voter registration, social statistics, and
student test scores, has been less impressive. Television, except as a
marketing device and a family baby-sitter, has not been widely touted
lately as a major engine of American progress, even by its

Societies that do not affirm common values from within eventually have
them imposed from without. Indeed, a culture controlled by television
could in the long run favor the more disciplined and authoritarian
Confucian-based social structures of East Asia over our kind of
pluralistic and open democracy. Perhaps we, like those in Freud's
German-speaking world, might prove to react more passively to an
autocratic drift of our own than anyone thinks possible in a civilized
country. Perhaps, as electronics accelerate the trend in the American
media to replace moral values with aesthetic ones, we already are
morally anesthetized. We tend to talk now more about lifestyles than
about life's substance, about the game of power and the choreography of
political manipulation rather than about governance and public service
as inherently moral activities.

Digital Treasure Trove

A key question today is whether the new information superhighway,
variously envisaged, will reinforce the values and dynamism of our
society more fully than television has proven able to do. At first
glance, the answer would seem to be a confident yes. This new
interactive, multimedia world does, after all, engage the active mind in
intellectual calisthenics and in creative interplay with useful
information. But the answer is less clear when we move beyond technical
questions about what the highway will look like and whose trucks will
travel on it, and we ask, What is it bringing and to whom?

Do we want this new technology simply to provide movies on demand, video
games, home shopping, telephone services, telebanking, teleconferencing,
virtual reality, and databases for individual consumers? If the
superhighway provides only entertainment and high-priced information on
demand, the gap will widen between the information haves and have-nots
in our society. Many Americans will lack inexpensive access to the
knowledge they need to learn and prosper in an ever-changing economy,
and we all may forfeit this technology's great potential for genuine
national renewal.

The Library of Congress will soon be receiving and organizing vast
amounts of new material in already digitized form: films, music,
encyclopedias, legal records, maps, scientific papers, government
documents--all kinds of data. That material will be supplemented by
other material digitized by the library itself. Properly organized and
made accessible, the material can have as positive results as Andrew
Carnegie's public library movement had a century ago in giving the
general public unprecedented access to knowledge and self-improvement.
The Library of Congress is moving to help meet that challenge in four
important ways:
1. by enriching and energizing the existing network,
2. by creating core content for a new National Digital Library,
3. by defining the library's own strategic digital plan, and
4. by helping lay the groundwork for the network of the future:
the National Information Infrastructure.

Enriching the Network

The Library of Congress is enriching the existing network by becoming in
recent months a major (even massive) presence on the Internet. It now
provides free over the Internet more than 26 million records, including
the entire Library of Congress card catalog, summaries and the status of
federal legislation, copyright registration records, and abstracts and
citations from foreign laws.

The Library of Congress also makes available electronically over the
Internet the images and accompanying texts from its major exhibitions,
including Secrets of the Russian Archives, Columbus 1492 Quincentennial-
-Meeting of Old and New Worlds, Treasures of the Vatican Library, the
Dead Sea Scrolls, and African-American Mosaic. There are 7,000 log-ons
to Library of Congress files over the Internet every day. Some 400,000
online visits have been made one way or another to the oldest of the
exhibits that we put online, Secrets of the Russian Archives. Much of
this consists of participatory discussion, not merely the downloading or
scanning of materials. The library's staff has designed an easy-to-use
menu system, called LC MARVEL, for accessing Library of Congress
information and for connecting to other resources on the Internet. The
staff is continuing to build new tools in order to improve access to the
library's resources over the Internet and to make additional materials

Building the National Digital Library

Even more important for the long run may be the core content the Library
of Congress is creating for a new National Digital Library. We are
nearing completion of a five-year pilot of the library's American Memory
Project, which now comprises 210,000 digitized items from the Americana
collections, including prints and photographs, manuscripts, sound
recordings, and motion pictures--a true multimedia database--although
still representing only a very small fraction of the 104 million items
the library has in its collections. American Memory has been tested in
44 schools and libraries around the country and is being further tested
this year in several different delivery modes. The library's goal is to
assemble an American collection of five million digitized items by the
end of this century.

Planning a Strategy

The Library of Congress is moving into the digital age by defining a
strategic plan that will cover future as well as current collections.
The library, accordingly, is attempting to build its capacity to
acquire, catalog, preserve, and provide access to a future collection
that will be increasingly digital in format; convert parts of the
current core collection besides Americana into digital formats; and
effectively integrate both digital and nondigital materials. The library
intends to play a useful leadership role by doing those things it is
uniquely equipped to do: developing new approaches to organizing,
managing, and preserving digital materials as well as creating necessary
procedures for protection of intellectual property (the latter is a
statutory obligation, for the copyright office is part of the Library of
Congress). The most difficult and essential task of all will be to
acquire the resources to convert current collections to digital formats.

Several projects already under way are building the foundation that will
comprise those resources. First is the Electronic Copyright Management
System, jointly supported by the Library of Congress and the Advanced
Research Projects Agency (ARPA, formerly DARPA), which will serve as a
test bed to evaluate electronic copyright deposit, registration, and
recordation concepts and issues. Second, the Electronic Cataloging-in-
Publication (CIP) project is testing online transmission of galleys from
several publishers over the Internet to facilitate the preparation of
cataloging information and establish the foundation for an electronic
library of machine-readable books. Third, the Library of Congress is
establishing partnerships with the private sector in the last stage of
the American Memory test to disseminate more broadly its digital
materials. This includes specific agreements regarding pilots with Jones
Intercable and Bell Atlantic.

Catalyst for Change

Finally, the Library of Congress wants to contribute to the electronic
future by being an exemplary catalyst for the library community in
building the National Information Infrastructure. Vice President Gore in
Buenos Aires recently called libraries "the key to American success in
fully exploiting the information superhighways of the future." The
Library of Congress's collections are part of the nation's strategic
information reserve that will provide much of the intellectual cargo on
the information superhighways.

We want the National Digital Library to serve as an inspiration--perhaps
a de facto standards-making model--for the many libraries that will
begin making their collections available electronically. Our experience
with American Memory and other projects for more than five years should
provide useful lessons and help establish common techniques and
standards for the much larger community that is only now beginning the
burdensome and expensive task of becoming electronic libraries.

Libraries will be important information nodes where users can access a
vast variety of information services not profitable enough to put into
homes, but desired sufficiently to be located in communities.
Librarians, increasingly freed from traditional, repetitive tasks, will
serve as knowledge navigators, guiding users to the information they are
seeking and working as European archivists or scriptors have long worked
in the great medieval libraries. In a sense, those older institutions
have never accepted modern cataloging. Relying instead on human
navigators, they have some of the greatest scholars serving as knowledge
navigators for their colleagues.

There is one other area we have explored, without yet having done
anything decisive about it. It has to do with the possibility of
creating for the private sector an electronic index to databases of
scientific and technical information. This would not be a giant service
of our own, but rather a central switchboard that could direct people to
the many directory and database services of this kind that are coming
into being.

Guardians of the Dream

Libraries can and should be the base camps for the pursuit of truth and
for the discovery of the new truths we will need to be making in all
kinds of ways during the information age. Multimedial digital materials
can provide both an educational hook to attract people into libraries
and a line of self-generated questioning that pulls people back into
books rather than away from them, as television generally does.

Libraries need electronic additions but not electrocution, for
librarians are the guardians of an institution central to the American
dream, where knowledge can slowly ripen into wisdom and occasionally
break through to new creativity. A better life will come in our America,
not just from more data and a modem but also from the better
understanding of one another that comes from books and from seeking
access to content from others rather than just indulging in contentment
with ourselves.

Let us hope that we can keep alive the values of the book in the new
multimedia age into which we are now entering, favoring active minds
over spectator passivity and putting things together rather than just
taking them apart. Whatever the confusion of our own minds and the
profusion of information that will be gushing out of all this, things
can still come together in a book, just as the left and right halves of
the brain come together in one human mind, and the hemispheres--East and
West, North and South--coexist in a single fragile planet.

This article is an abridged version of an address presented at the Fifth
Roundtable in Multimedia, April 6-8, 1994, Marina del Rey, California.
The Roundtable in Multimedia is an invitational conference that has been
bringing together doers and leaders in the digital revolution annually
since 1990. The full address and ensuing discussion is part of an edited
volume available for $26, including postage, from Council for Technology
and the Individual, 629 Alta Avenue, Santa Monica, CA 90402.


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