Technology Allows Close Perusal of the Declaration of Independence

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Starting on Saturday, visitors to the U.S. Library of Congress will be able to scroll through a draft of the Declaration of Independence and see the changes Ben Franklin made as he worked with Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers to write the historic document.

Or, they will be able to stroll through bookshelves filled with more than 6,000 books in Jefferson's personal library, which became the core of the Library of Congress. Visitors will be able to scroll through individual books on computer touchscreens, and see books from Jefferson's personal collection up close.

On Saturday, the Library of Congress opens a set of interactive exhibitions, called the Library of Congress Experience. Powered by technology from Microsoft, as well as a Web site hosted by Terremark Worldwide, the library's interactive exhibits will allow in-person and online visitors to see and touch the library's vast resources in new ways, said James Billington, the librarian of Congress.

"These are not just exhibits, but, we believe, experiences," Billington said during a media tour of the new exhibits Wednesday.

For example, the library, which boasts the largest collection in the world, has a draft of the Declaration of Independence on display. Next to the glass-enclosed draft, there's a touchscreen kiosk, in which visitors can scroll through the draft, see where changes were made, and read explanations for some of those changes.

Elsewhere in the library's Thomas Jefferson Building, visitors can scroll through the Gutenberg Bible and the Giant Bible of Mainz on touchscreens after looking at the actual bibles behind glass.

And visitors can walk among Jefferson's library collection and take a closer look at the books on the touchscreen monitors. The Library of Congress has more than 6,000 of the books on display, with more than 2,000 that were originally owned by Jefferson. Others have been replaced with exact copies of the books he had, after an 1851 fire destroyed about two-thirds of his original collection.

Also launching on Saturday is the Web site, where online visitors can see some of the same exhibits. Later in the year, online visitors will be able to bookmark exhibitions of interest on their personalized MyLOC page and create a sort of guided tour for when they visit the library in person.

John Sampson, Microsoft's director of federal government affairs, said he was blown away by the interactive exhibits. A group of U.S. lawmakers first wrote to Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates in 1997, asking for help with interactive displays at the library, and the company has donated about US$3 million worth of technology and consulting to the library project, Sampson said.

Several Microsoft technologies, including Vista, Silverlight and Visual Studio, have gone into the library's exhibits, Sampson said.

The way the library was able to "integrate technology into the whole experience was really unique," Sampson said.

Instead of being content with its "amazing" collection, the library decided it needed to create an experience where "you can touch it," he added. "What they're really looking for is a relationship with the public, an ongoing relationship," Sampson said.

The library's chief of rare books, Mark Dimunation, was giving tours of the Jefferson library exhibit on Wednesday. The library included 6,487 books, and in addition to the 2,000 of Jefferson originals on display, the Library of Congress has been able to acquire exact copies of all but about 300 books that Jefferson owned.

Jefferson's library, which was the largest private collection in North America when Congress purchased it in 1815, shows the founding father's interests and the ideas that shaped his philosophy, Dimunation said.

"This is the 18th century world," Dimunation said as he showed visitors the library. "It's Jefferson's mind encircling us."

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