THE United States Library of Congress is gearing up for an information revolution.
The "goal is establishing a library without walls," proclaims Jacqueline Hess, the director of the Library of Congress's National Demonstration Lab.
The library - the largest in the world - eventually wants to put much, if not all, of the 100 million items in its collection into digital, or computer, form. This could allow browsing through the library's stacks from afar by way of increasingly powerful information networks.
Once today's data networks develop into the "data superhighways" of tomorrow - a concept backed by the Clinton administration - Library of Congress multimedia packages could be as easily received from afar as cable TV is today.
The library also is seeking the authority from Congress to charge access fees to recoup some of the expense of delivering new electronic services. Sen. Claiborne Pell (D) of Rhode Island has introduced a bill on the library's behalf that would replace a 1902 law.
For library officials, this proposal is right in line with President Clinton's call for government institutions to become more entrepreneurial.
"We mean by entrepreneurial reaching out and doing new and different things," says Associate Librarian of Congress Donald Curran. "There is quite a lot entrepreneurial interest in rendering library services in the future."
But as the Library of Congress becomes more entrepreneurial, businesses involved in distributing information digitally grow concerned. The Library of Congress has more material on hand than any other source in the country. Many sellers of information services worry it could corner the market.
"The impact of what the Library of Congress does in the marketplace has to be considered," says Steve Metalitz, a vice-president for the trade group, The Information Industry Association.
"We want to see a diversity of sources for information based on the collections in the library," Mr. Metalitz added. His is a plea for the private sector to get a piece of the action as the Library of Congress increasingly computerizes its collections.
The library is not opposed to such arrangements. It has a long history of joint ventures in more traditional formats - including books, records, and films.
Users of Internet - the most widely used data highways today - already can get access to a very limited part of the Library of Congress's collections. These selections include translations of documents from the archives of the former Soviet Union, bibliographic material, research guides, and even pictures from an exhibition of treasures from the Vatican.
As part of its thrust into new technologies, the library has already started linking films, videos, and sound recordings - previously disparate elements - into computerized multimedia packages. A researcher interested in American musical traditions, for example, can sit at a computer terminal in the National Demonstration Lab and run programs that play rare recordings by legendary musicians, show pictures of the artists and their milieu, as well as present historical, cultural, and biographical texts - a ll at the same time.
These are not available on long-distance computer networks yet - partly because these packages contain so much data that they could clog the system.
Fully computerizing a collection as large as the Library of Congress is an immensely expensive undertaking. Converting just a single page of printed text currently costs $2 to $3.
The seed work, up to now, has been funded with a combination of federal appropriations and donations from such companies as GTE, International Business Machines, Microsoft, NYNEX, and Pioneer Electronics. "But there is not sufficient charity available to do the job," said lab director Hess. And with the federal deficit now in excess of $300 billion, "there simply isn't enough money for this sort of thing from appropriated sources."
Hence the concept of charging access fees. The Library of Congress's staff prepared the broadly worded Pell legislation. Mr. Curran acknow- ledges that the bill is intentionally vague. It was designed that way because it will need to govern library activities decades away as technologies "yet to be defined, yet to be imagined, and yet to be offered" appear on the scene, he explains. The law currently governing this kind of activity at the library dates to 1902.
Many of the nation's librarians, however, are still concerned about keeping the American democratic tradition of information freely and openly available through public libraries.
"We are very concerned about fees as a barrier to access to information for all people," says Francis Buckley, the associate director of the Detroit Public Library and head of a panel at the American Library Association.
Officials of the Library of Congress, however, insist that it will always be mandated to provide "basic, core library services" free of charge.