Riding the digital wave
Laura Campbell leads Library of Congress into a technological future
- By Greg Langlois
- Mar 25, 2001
Library of Congress home page
Sitting atop her chestnut horse, Laura Campbell soaks up the bucolic scene of the Virginia countryside every weekend, recharging for the week ahead.
Campbell, associate librarian for strategic initiatives at the Library of Congress, makes a 50-mile trip with her husband each weekend to their small farm in Upperville, Va., where she hops on her quarter horse, Luke, and rides past wild cherry trees, ducks and other country trappings, as her husband tends his vegetable garden.
Although it is less than an hour's drive from their home in Washington, D.C., the farm and its surroundings seem like another world, Campbell said, where time stands still. "The Virginia countryside is just magical," she said. Cross-country riding there is "very serene," and while doing so, "you could be at any time in history," she said.
But Campbell is reminded every weekday precisely what era she's in. A major part of Campbell's job at the library is figuring out how the institution should approach the explosion of digital information. As associate librarian for strategic initiatives, a position created last year, Campbell is leading the library's effort to develop systematic methods for collecting and preserving digital materials that become part of the library's vast archives.
"We have multiple sources of digital material that we must learn how to address [to] provide consistent, reliable standards for archiving," Campbell said. Collected materials today are often "born digital," as opposed to being converted from a physical form.
Campbell's position was created in response to a 207-page report issued by the National Academy of Sciences last summer. The report has been monumental in shaping the library's digital approach. It urged that a new associate librarian assume not only overall strategic information technology planning, but also oversee the library's IT services division and be the representative on a new external technical advisory board.
In addition, Campbell remains director of the library's National Digital Library program, which produces the library's widely popular American Memory Web site. The site showcases precious collections material, such as Civil War maps, 19th century baseball cards and papers from George Washington. Librarian James Billington raised more than $46 million in private-sector funding for the project, and last year NDL reached its goal of having 5 million materials digitized by the end of 2000.
As director of NDL, Campbell's team-building abilities helped win over library staff members, said Jill Brett, a library public affairs officer and friend of Campbell's.
"That was a kind of watershed for the library because it brought together a lot of people from around the library who were unaccustomed to digitizing collections," Brett said. "Many people had to be convinced of the wisdom of all of this."
Campbell, who became NDL director in 1993, said the project has helped prepare her and the library for a new, broader effort to address digital preservation. Last year, Congress earmarked just under $100 million — no small sum for the library — for the library to lead a cooperative, nationwide effort to determine how to acquire, store and preserve digital materials, especially those born digital. Campbell will lead this effort, which also germinated in the NAS report.
Campbell joined the library in 1992 after doing consulting work there. "I have to say I fell in love with the place, which is easy to do," she said. "It's a magical experience to see first-hand the treasures that exist in this vast collection. And the people, they're very smart — many of the curators are treasures themselves."