If you had the chance to see Thomas Jefferson's hand-edited draft of the Declaration of Independence up close and personal, how much do you think you could take away from the experience? Simply viewing the dimly lit rough draft on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., could amount to little more than words scrawled on a very old page. To really learn about the document, visitors would have to speak onsite with a guide or independently research the document.
The library is working to create a completely different experience, however, by deploying new technologies that enrich the exhibits for both on-site and online visitors, allowing anyone in the world to learn more about many of the treasures displayed at the library.
In April, the library unveiled the "Library of Congress Experience," computer kiosks in selected locations that let users virtually flip through and examine artifacts that are too delicate for handling, such as Jefferson's Declaration of Independence draft, George Washington's copy of the U.S. Constitution, John Beckley's Bill of Rights, the Gutenberg Bible, the Giant Bible of Mainz, Martin Waldeseemüller's 16th-century world maps, and more.
Reaching Out to the Nation
The move online and onto computers was part of the library's strategy to be more accessible to the American public, according to Matt Raymond, the Library of Congress communications director. He said reaching more people in a meaningful way is a goal of Librarian of Congress James Billington, who sets policy and directs the library's programs.
"We've been known as a scholarly institution, and that will always remain at the center of our mission, but we are the nation's library as well as Congress' library," Raymond said. "This is about opening ourselves up and creating some lifelong users along the way."
Using the kiosks, visitors can also get a detailed view of architectural elements of the Great Hall within the library's Jefferson Building.
The library commissioned photographer Carol Highsmith to take numerous high-resolution photos of the spectacular Great Hall, which were used to create the digital displays available to visitors. "We were able to scan them and merge them with the technology to create an immersive experience," said John Sampson, director of federal government affairs for Microsoft, which provided the kiosks.
Kiosk users also can decipher hard-to-read handwritten documents by overlaying typewritten text, and they can zoom in on the areas that interest them.
"This is not the final, finished, pretty version that you see over at the archives. This is the product of creativity," Raymond said, referring to Jefferson's Declaration of Independence rough draft.
"It's a way that you can touch history," he continued, noting the visibility of the parchment paper's fiber and the repairs and edits made to the document by literally cutting and pasting.
Visitors can flip electronically through books from Jefferson's library, turning pages with their fingers as they would a printed book. Where necessary, users also can overlay a typewritten translation if the original text is in a foreign language.
For the text displays and architectural elements, kiosk users can call up additional information, such as other written works that helped form the documents on display and explanations of the symbolism found in architectural elements.
"The Great Hall of the Jefferson Building of the Library of Congress is truly one of the most amazing buildings in Washington, D.C., if not the country," said Sampson. "Yet, if you walked in and weren't lucky enough to have a curator at your side to help you interpret all the amazing artwork and carvings, you certainly would know that you are in the presence of something amazing, but you wouldn't really understand it. What we are able to do with the kiosk is
help people to understand what they are seeing and some of the symbolism around them."
That new understanding extends to Web visitors too. Images and interactive material similar to the library kiosks also are available online. In fact, there's more to be done on the Web at www.myloc.gov even if a visitor has already spent time at the library.
The Online Experience
Like on-site visitors, online visitors can look at and zoom in on exhibit photographs. In addition, they can view the original versions of historic documents and typewritten transcriptions.
Several interactive learning activities are available exclusively online, including games and activities that help children in grades three through 12 comprehend the displayed materials. Lesson plans for grade school educators are also available on the site.
In addition to the current offerings, Raymond said, the library will soon offer a "Passport to Knowledge" with a bar code that will allow users to create a personalized online collection.
"People can swipe the bar code on an exhibit or an artifact that they like," he said, "and it will build a Web site personalized for them on the back end where they can really create their own collections."
With their personalized collections, users can bookmark artifacts for further research, share with others or play a game called Knowledge Quest -- at the library or at the Web site -- that challenges visitors to solve riddles and puzzles associated with the bookmarked items.
According to Raymond, the Library of Congress Experience has been a hit with the younger generation of learners who visit the landmark library.
"We have an entire generation of people who have grown up not knowing a world without the Internet. They are used to this kind of interaction, and they've come to expect it," he said.
The Net generation gets more out of the interactive technology than from "dry, old textbooks," Raymond said.
"When you go through the Experience, you will see young people going right to the interactives and moving the documents and manipulating them, and it opens their eyes to the actual artifacts and history that is all around them."
To see video of the Library of Congress Experience, visit GTtv.