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The Library of Congress Delivers a Whole New Experience
Posted On April 14, 2008
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Digitizing archival treasures to allow wider access has become a major strategy in many organizations, and the venerable Library of Congress has just put itself at the forefront of that movement again. This past Saturday, April 12, LC launched a massive new project called the Library of Congress Experience; it was 3 years in the making. It’s partly about putting more exclusive LC content online, but there’s a lot more to it than that. Much of the content in the Experience is not only newly digitized, but it is also accessible in new and exciting ways, both in person and online.

At a media preview at LC on Wednesday, I tried out a clean, simple, touchscreen interface that let me flip through old books page by page in a way that reminded me of Amazon functionality—except this was even better. In addition to flipping through page spreads, I could zoom in to see rich levels of detail. I could also hover over icons that opened to reveal notes about interesting aspects of the pages. Part of the Experience is having these touchscreen kiosks throughout the halls of LC so visitors can see more than ever before.

Happily, people who can’t come to Washington, D.C., can see all of this new content at To enjoy the "Interactives" (as those features are called) online, you’re prompted to download a free version of Silverlight, the Microsoft technology that enables the zooming and other exploratory activities. (I was able to install it onto my home PC quickly and easily, where it downloaded pages and pages of high-resolution scans at lightening speed, even over my wireless connection.)

The LC collections you can now view interactively aren’t just any old books, of course, but rather priceless treasures, including the following: 

  • Books from Thomas Jefferson’s library 
  • Maps by Martin Waldseeműller dating from 1507 and 1516 
  • George Washington’s annotated copy of the U.S. Constitution 
  • The Giant Bible of Mainz and the Gutenberg Bible

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington called this launch "the fulfillment of a vision." He was excited that the Experience would allow "visitors of all ages and all educational levels" to see "stunning details" of architecture and iconography. Billington also acknowledged the incredible amount of work put in by many LC employees. In fact, LC was closed to the public during the whole week leading up to the launch, to complete preparations for the celebration there on Saturday.

Links to Education

Exploring any of these treasures would be educational, but the Library of Congress has factored in special ways for young people to learn through this new suite of materials. To that end, a companion website,, launched on April 12. It features the same interactive exhibitions that are available on-site along with a wealth of educational resources that teachers and librarians can use. There are lots of prepared lesson plans and other online activities for kids. According to LC, "Onsite and online multimedia activities will engage young people to think critically, inspiring lifelong learning and future exploration of the Library’s collections."

The preview I attended showcased a local teacher, who often uses LC’s primary resources, and some of her students. After the formal remarks, Billington took the middle school students on a tour of the building and demonstrated some of the kiosks for them.

Another aspect of the launch is the Passport to Knowledge, which will allow people to personalize their experiences. Each on-site visitor will get a passport to help them navigate the Jefferson Building; it will offer audio tours to the "greatest hits" inside; and it will allow people on- and off-site to play Knowledge Quest, a "game-based learning adventure" where players solve riddles and puzzles related to specific artifacts and exhibits. What’s more, by the end of 2008, these Passports to Knowledge will have individual bar codes to allow users to bookmark areas of interest so they can return to learn more later. At home, they’ll be able to access their personally chosen collections on It will be like each person creating his or her own webpage of the things in LC they enjoy the most.

Interesting Details and Revelations

During my own live experience, I spent time on the main floor exploring two of the most famous bibles. I’d seen the glass-encased copies of the Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz in years past, and I knew that curators carefully turned pages every so often to display different spreads and also to keep any one page from being exposed to too much light. But I learned more about them from Betsy Nahum-Miller, an exhibition director from LC’s interpretative programs office. She told me how the Mainz bible was the only one of its kind and that LC was the only library to ever digitize it. (Gutenberg has been digitized by others, though, such as The British Library.)

One interesting revelation was that the first five pages of the Mainz bible have never been shown, ever, because it would ruin the binding to open the ancient book that way. But thanks to careful handling and special archiving cameras, now anyone in the world (with a computer, of course) can see those long-hidden pages. The Interactives allow everyone to see detailed hover descriptions, including some important notes that were translated from Latin to help people understand important points about the work. (Incidentally, LC has never released digital versions of either of these two bibles prior to this project launch.)

The Experience Will Keep Expanding

Many benefactors, including the U.S. Congress, individuals, and corporations, contributed to make this experience possible. About 10,000 people were expected to celebrate at this Saturday’s kick-off festivities, and they’ll be only the first to enjoy the new Library of Congress Experience. About 4 million people visit LC each year. Thanks to a tunnel being built between LC and the Capital Visitor’s Center, staffers expect that number to double in the future. And thanks to the wonders of digital data, countless millions from across the globe can visit now too.

Kathy Dempsey is the editor of Marketing Library Services newsletter, author of The Accidental Library Marketer, and owner of Libraries Are Essential consulting company.

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