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Librarian of Congress links knowledge to freedom in speech at WFU

October 30, 2007

Librarian of Congress James H. Billington linked the free flow of knowledge to the spread of freedom around the world during a speech Oct. 30 at Wake Forest University’s Fall Convocation in Wait Chapel.

In an address titled “The Future of Freedom,” Billington traced the development of freedom in the United States as “our most cherished national ideal” and examined the challenges posed today by short-term thinking as well as the opportunities afforded by new information technologies.

"I would suggest that in an age of rapidly declining material resources and shrinking physical frontiers, the future of freedom must increasingly be found in the domain of the mind and the spirit,” Billington offered.

As librarian of Congress for the past 20 years, the Rhodes Scholar and former history professor at Princeton and Harvard universities led the creation of the “American Memory” National Digital Library (NDL), which makes freely available online nearly 11 million American historical items from the collections of the library and other research institutions.  Recently, the Library of Congress has teamed up with UNESCO and libraries from around the world to launch the World Digital Library, modeled after the “American Memory” project.

While religious radicalism and violent movements around the globe pose significant threats to freedom, Billington sees hope in both the education and political arenas.

"In the field of education, the digital revolution has created new possibilities for universalizing the Jeffersonian ideal of knowledge as the basis for democratization,” Billington said, noting that the Internet offers scholars around the world greater access to research and improved sharing of ideas.

But Billington, author of “The Face of Russia,” called that country “a vital test case for the future of freedom.”

“It has become, for the first time in its modern history, a nation-state rather than an empire, and formally at least, a democracy rather than an autocracy, but it is still the Wal-Mart of weapons of mass destruction,” Billington lamented.

He noted the increasing use of authoritarian controls in Russia, but said he also sees signs of hope.  Billington said he was encouraged by his experience as chairman of the Open World Program, a Congress-backed initiative that brought 11,000 emerging young post-Soviet leaders to the United States, and by his recent trip to Russia, where he learned about a reciprocal program under development to bring Americans there.  President Vladimir Putin also invited him to co-chair a new advisory committee to develop a technologically modern library system covering all of Russia.

During the convocation, university officials recognized students serving on the Honor and Ethics Council, the Board of Investigators and Advisors, and the Judicial Council and presented faculty and alumni awards for community service and distinguished teaching.

Press Contacts:

Eric Frazier
(336) 758-5237

Kevin Cox
(336) 758-5237

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