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Lost in Cyberspace

Library of Congress combines multimedia glitz with the power of the Web

This article was originally published on February 23, 1999 by SignOn San Diego and Copley News Service.

This is what the multimedia and the World Wide Web were supposed to be about. Not blasting space aliens. Not shopping online for trinkets. Not placing an electronic bet on the Lakers. Not leering at pictures of nakedcheerleaders.

The Web and the high-resolution multimedia technology that accompanied it were both originally intended to further education – to harness the power of computers to bring the knowledge of the world's greatest minds to anyone who would learn.

And every once in awhile, mixed in with all the dross that seems to dominate both the online and CD-ROM worlds these days, comes a new application that reminds us of the idealism once behind the computer revolution.

The Library of Congress: Eyes of the Nation
The Library of Congress: Eyes of the Nation
Southpeak Interactive / The History Channel: 1998

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"The Library of Congress: Eyes of the Nation" is one of the best (and least expensive) examples of what true multimedia learning should be. Not in the same ballpark, perhaps, as the CD-ROM version of the Encyclopedia Britannica or complete collection of National Geographic, it is nevertheless one of the best single-disc reference tools out there – not least because, as an official production of the library, it is fully integrated with the library's own Web site.

As probably intended, "Eyes of the Nation" continues the ongoing redefinition of what a library is – reforming it from a large, brick temple full of books into a educational tool accessible from anywhere and by anyone.

And what a tool. For most of its existence, the Library of Congress – one of the great libraries in history, and, thanks to its placement in the modern era, certainly the largest collection of human knowledge yet – was inaccessible to most of those to whom it belonged. Unless you lived near or visited Washington, D.C., you were not able to visit the library, to conduct research from its vast collections, to attend the seminars and lectures in its stately halls.

Computer technolgoy is still no substitute for standing in the central hall surrounded by history, but it does go a long way in making the collection available to a heck of a lot more people than the 2 million lucky enough to visit each year.

To be sure, one need not have a copy of "Eyes of the Nation" in order to take advantage of the Library of Congress' tremendous online resources. Anyone can simply point their browser to and bring huge swaths of the library's collection into their home.

But while a well-organized site, the Library of Congress' online collection remains unfathomably and intimidatingly vast.

What the library (and title co-producers The History Channel and SouthPeak Interactive) has given us in "Eyes of the Nation" is a starting point, a focus, a way to navigate the riches of the library. Obviously, there is no way a single CD-ROM or even DVD can capture more than a tiny sliver of the Library of Congress' collection, which runs into the tens of millions of volumes.

Instead, "Eyes" provides a broad overview with representative samples – historic photos and reproductions of documents, paintings and artifacts (more than 3,000 on the CD-ROM version). You can browse the library's collection via a timeline, or visit some of the special collections, or see some of the current exhibits.

The interface is intuitive – point your mouse and click on what you want to see. From nearly every menu, you can access the searchable databases on the library's Internet site, which is adding new materials from its collection daily.

All of which adds up to this: With this disc and Internet access, you have available in your den or office more learning than was held in the entire library of Alexandria, access to more knowledge than the greatest scholars of the Renaissance had at the great Vatican library, more information than Leonardo da Vinci could have dreamt of.

Kind of makes television seem boring, doesn't it?