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A Digital Strategy For the Library of Congress


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Digital libraries challenge the core practices of libraries and archives in many respects, not only in terms of accommodating digital information and technology, but also through the need to develop new economic and organizational models. As the world's largest library, the Library of Congress (LC)1 perhaps faces the most profound questions of how to collect, catalog, preserve, and provide access to digital resources. The LC asked the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board of the National Academies for advice in this area by commissioning the study that culminated with the publication of LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress.2

The boundaries of library collections are traditionally determined by the ownership of physical artifacts. However, for digital resources accessible by networks, this notion of "library collection" needs to change because ownership and physical proximity to collections are no longer prerequisites for access to materials so that the issue of access can be separated from that of stewardship. Thus, an important question facing the LC is how to define the scope of its digital collections. No one institution can hope to collect all or even a majority of all digital content; the volume is staggering. Cooperative arrangements for distributed collections are essential for the LC's future, and need to be pursued more aggressively. The LC should explicitly define the sets of digital resources for which it will assume long-term curatorial responsibility.

The preservation of physical artifacts occurs through developing and maintaining collections in a decentralized manner; any particular physical artifact is likely to exist in a library or archive somewhere. By contrast, the preservation of digital resources does not take place as a by-product of normal access, but must be pursued explicitly and cooperatively since no one institution can be expected to preserve all digital information and because many legal, economic, and technical issues surrounding digital preservation are unresolved. The LC should join, and in some instances, lead or facilitate, national and international research and development efforts in digital preservation.

The LC continues to play an essential role in coordinating the cataloging standards that make cooperative cataloging possible. The LC should examine how its role could be extended and transformed in the larger digital cataloging (metadata) context. The past strategy of coordinating efforts primarily within the library community is no longer sufficient because important new stakeholders such as Web search companies are now involved.

A clear theme emerges: the digital age calls for much more collaboration and cooperation than in the past. For the LC to be successful, it will need to:

  • Invent a new kind of organization for acquiring and preserving materials that includes digital information in all its forms, in particular information that is initially available in digital form;
  • Open itself to a broader and deeper dialogue with the world of information professionals beyond its walls;
  • Find the management vision and will to make paradigmatic change happen; and
  • Invest in the technology infrastructure required to support such change.

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Author

Alan S. Inouye (AInouye@nas.edu) is study director for the Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Washington, D.C.

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Footnotes

1 The Library of Congress has a collection of approximately 119 million items, about 4,000 employees, and a net cost of operations of $436 million (in FY99).

2 The full text is available at www.cstb.org.


©2001 ACM  0002-0782/01/0500  $5.00

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