Library of Congress to Open Collections to Local Libraries in Electronic Access Plans

By Billington, James H. | American Libraries, September 1991 | Go to article overview

Library of Congress to Open Collections to Local Libraries in Electronic Access Plans


Billington, James H., American Libraries


Asked why he chose to use his fortune to finance local libraries, Andrew Carnegie replied that they were "the best agencies for improving the masses of people.... They reach the aspiring and open to those the chief treasures of the world."

Collectively, the nation's libraries, whose growth was spurred by Carnegie almost 100 years ago, represent one of America's strongest assets in the coming effort to improve education, spur creativity, sustain democracy, and maintain our leadership in a competitive world.

We have tried hard to help get this message across in Washington, and I think policymakers on and off Capitol Hill are slowly beginning to realize what libraries, properly supported, can do for the future health of our republic.

Without fanfare, the Library of Congress has long served the nation's libraries in many ways--through its cataloging, its book loans, its reference referrals, its services to the blind, and its cooperative Center for the Book campaigns to promote reading and literacy (AL, Oct., p. 906+).

Now we are moving ahead in new ways to reach out and reinforce the library community--with the advice and counsel of librarians everywhere.

After I became Librarian of Congress in 1987, in my visits throughout the country, two question key popping up: Can the bibliographic information complied by LC become available online to other institutions? Can some of its contents as well as its cataloging be shared electronically?

State libraries will be first to benefit

We went to work on these possibilities. I can now report that in January 1991 we began offering LC Direct, a new online service, to state libraries. It will be a 24-month experiment. LC Direct users will have access to the library's vast storehouse of bibliographic, subject, and name authority records, including information summarizing nearly two decades of U.S. legislation and abstracts of periodical articles on current legislative topics. Specialized databases serving users such as the blind and physically handicapped and copyright specialists are also available.

We chose 33 state library agencies for this test because of their role in serving state legislatures and in developing statewide library services. During the two-year trial period, we will evaluate demand and determine what services we should supply in the future.

Some of the data featured on LC Direcct has been previously available from us on machine-readable magnetic tape, CD-ROM, or in print or microfiche publications. However, only the largest libraries, networks, and service providers have had the equipment to use these materials.

Now, state libraries need nothing more sophisticated than a PC and modem to search Library of Congress data at the source, using LC's new full-color touch screens.

Earlier project won wide acclaim

LC Direct follows a 1989 pilot version that offered online access to 14 institutions across the United States and drew enthusiastic responses from participants. For example, the California State Library at Sacramento reported that access to LC databases was vital in locating information on disaster recovery following the October 1989 San Francisco earthquake.

Delivering primary sources

In American Memory, which was inaugurated in 1989 on a six-year pilot basis, we have begun a radically new project still in the development stage. Coordinated by Carl Fleischhauer, former specialist at LC's American Folklife Center, American Memory will move beyond providing our bibliographical materials by actually delivering electronic copies of some of our unique collections. By converting collections of artifacts into electronic format, American Memory constitutes a first step in the library's long-term effort to share our collections--especially primary source holdings--via technology with local library users from Maine to California. …

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