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A library is not a book museum

By Scott Bradner

Libraries are not a new idea. The Egyptians built an impressive one in Alexandria about 280 BC. Two millennia later libraries, especially the large public and university libraries, perform a vital role in society and education. But defining the role of the library in this increasingly digital world is not easy. It is particularly not easy for the largest library in the world, the U.S. Library of Congress. (

The Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Research Council has just published an in-depth review and set of recommendations for the Library of Congress. (The full report is on the web at The report is no whitewash and is far from complacent. It paints a picture of considerable challenge for the library and, in extension, for dealing with keeping a historical record of the ephemeral Internet.

Historically, libraries have been collectors and catalogers of things -- books, periodicals, maps and papers -- but the equivalent of these things in today's world are increasingly digital. The Library does not have a good history of collecting digital things; for that matter, no one else does either.

With over 100 million items in its collection, the Library does have a remarkable 200 year track record in collecting things in the physical world. This is helped in no small matter by the fact that the Library is where copies of all works copyrighted in the US go.

What should be the approach in the digital arena? As the report notes, no one institution, no matter how large, could possibly hope to collect even a majority of all digital content. The report recommends that the Library work in cooperation with other institutions, public and private, to figure out what to do. Quite Internet-like in that the 'Net has to be managed in a cooperative way to work at all. Unfortunately for the Library it works at the whim of Congress and dealing with the digital world will require more funding and perhaps some legislation to clarify the Library's rights in the area of copyrighted digital materials. Thus, even if they knew the right thing to do, getting congressional attention is by no means a sure thing.

The report notes that the information technology department of the Library is not as good as it might be and, like the rest of the world, the Library is having a hard time finding good technical staff. I guess stock options are out of the question.

The problems with the libraries dealing with digital materials may seem like an overly academic concern but throughout history libraries have served a vital role not only in the education of students but also the development of laws, science and society. Failing to figure out how libraries can deal with the digital world would threaten our basic foundations.

disclaimer: Harvard reworks its foundations every now and then but I did not look at them for this column