Library of Congress is now adrift in a sea of digital data

Library of Congress is now adrift in a sea of digital data

By William Jackson

GCN Staff

The Library of Congress is so unprepared to serve as a national information repository in the digital age that it risks becoming a book museum, the National Academy of Sciences contends.

The library still plays a vital role in building collections of national and worldwide importance, but it 'cannot go on as before,' the academy concluded in a report released last month.

Chartered 200 years ago, the library also houses the Copyright Office. It focuses on print materials although more information is now being created, stored and distributed digitally.

Some problems found by the academy are basic. For example, not all library staff members have access to e-mail. Other problems are more arcane. For instance, the legality of collecting copies of U.S. Web sites under copyright deposit law is uncertain. And still other problems require congressional action. The library's training budget, for example, needs to be doubled or tripled, the academy said.

The library's managers were not surprised by the academy's findings, deputy librarian Donald Scott said. A five-year plan prepared by the library's own Digital Futures Group had already pointed out many of the problems.

'What got my attention was the urgency with which the library has to make decisions,' Scott said of the report. 'We had anticipated we would need to develop a better technology backbone to handle digital, but the scale of the report is much greater. We are now retooling the plan to determine what things we need to get into the 2002 budget.'

Among the top priorities are better security and an upgraded LAN, he said.

The library commissioned the study of its digital capabilities two years ago. The National Digital Library program, which has put millions of the library's holdings online at www.loc.gov, dates back to 1995.

'By 1998 we wanted to have an outside group take a look at what we had started, where we were and what they thought we needed to do,' Scott said.

No strategic plan

The report, LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress, found that the library does a good job of publishing existing collections in electronic format, but it has no strategic plan for acquiring, storing, processing or disseminating digital information.

'It is indicative of the library's struggles in shifting to new forms of information that the technology infrastructure lags behind not only that of the commercial world but also that of ambitious, not-for-profit research libraries,' the report said.

The library also has not cooperated adequately with other institutions to develop processes and standards for handling digital material, the academy found. 'The trend to insularity at [the library] must be halted and reversed immediately,' the report warned.

The study recommended against naming a chief information officer at this time because, it said, 'the current level of attention to technical vision and strategy within the library is not adequate.'

Instead, it recommended the library appoint a new deputy librarian and an oversight committee to approve all information technology investments.

Although some of the challenges of collecting, housing and making digital data available are unique to the Library of Congress, it shares many concerns with other organizations.

Hiring and retaining skilled IT professionals is a problem. New hires need training. But with 40 percent of the library staff eligible to retire by 2004, the library needs to replace departing employees with workers who have new skills.

Senior management should develop a consistent, coherent systems policy, the study said. Workflow and processes should be evaluated, and a strong in-house IT organization is needed.

The current 10-Mbps Ethernet network should be upgraded as soon as possible to 100-Mbps Fast Ethernet, and the asynchronous transfer mode backbone replaced with Gigabit Ethernet. And instead of a simple network firewall, the library needs an in-depth security plan.

Budget constraints will dictate much of what the library can accomplish, however, Scott said.

The report suggested easing constraints on raising money from corporate partnerships and sponsorships although, it said, 'It is unlikely and undesirable that such activity would become a major source of funding.'

The library will have to go to Congress to fund most of the work, and the first job will be educating those who hold the purse strings, Scott said.

'We have a responsibility to explain to Congress what is needed and to put a price tag on it,' he said.

The complete report is at www.nap.edu/books/0309071445/html.

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