Published Humanitas, Volume XXIII, Nos. 1 and 2, 2010

At our 2009 annual meeting, the Scholars Council of the Library of Congress was exposed to some surreal juxtapositions. First, the Librarian James Billington described the cultural impact of the global financial meltdown. University and public libraries lost a third to a half of their endowments or budgets, forcing them to lay off staff, suspend acquisitions, and eliminate whole collections. The Library of Congress was in better shape since it serves at the pleasure of the only institution empowered to authorize the printing of money. But without budget increases the Library can no longer keep up with the flood of new data and media in the digital age. Hence we were asked: what materials would statesmen and scholars twenty-five years from now rue us for not having collected today?

Next, we were given a briefing on the Library’s latest triumph, the World Digital Library. This miraculous project offers on-line, virtual-reality, access to the greatest manuscripts and artifacts from every civilization and historical era. A thousand items were already posted—some of them rare books hundreds of pages long—and tens of thousands of items are already projected. So even as we live in an age when all the music ever recorded will soon fit on a single iPod, we will soon live in an age when every artifact from Hammurabi’s Laws to a 1906 film of Ellis Island can be downloaded on your Blackberry.

Imagine, therefore, how discordant our next impression seemed. When the council was asked what new missions the Library might perform, a British professor asked sternly why the Library could not do something to uplift America’s deplorable popular culture. Dr. Billington always speaks of the Library mission to “bring Athens to Rome,” but could it not use its resources and political ties to bring a bit of Rome to the barbarians?

Finally, even as we pondered the co-existence of a bankrupt American economy, a miraculous American technology, and a philistine American public, we were asked what issue we would raise if given access to members of Congress. I had an answer to that one.

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