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Virtual Veritas

Saturday, November 1, 1997

ont>The nation’s libraries do a poor job of preserving conservative truths. We need to start our own.

Of all the great American institutions that deserve the support and affection of conservatives, lending libraries are among the most essential. At their best, libraries are repositories of our national intellectual heritage. In the free market of ideas, libraries are like banks, where any American can borrow the accumulated capital of knowledge and where some will eventually deposit the dividends of discovery. The cause of conservatism has everything to gain from this egalitarian preservation of political philosophy, classical literature, moral fiction, historical fact—of "the best that has been thought and said," as Matthew Arnold had it.

How appalling, then, that the nation’s conservative intellectual patrimony is so poorly preserved by our libraries. In most of our public, academic, and special facilities, conservative materials exist only in scant quantities. As a librarian of nearly two decades, I know whereof I speak. Consider one benchmark of this intellectual famine: statistics on the holdings of 25,000 U.S. libraries that belong to the national bibliographic database known as the Online Computer Library Center. Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, for example, is available in only 2,646 of these libraries, Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind in 2,180, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences in 1,126, and Witness, by Whittaker Chambers, in 2,285.

For leading conservative periodicals, the situation is even bleaker. Of the 25,000 libraries in the OCLC database, Human Events, Policy Review, and Commentary are found in about 3 percent, 3 percent, and 1.6 percent, respectively. Even throwing in the 2,300 or so locations that subscribe to National Review,  you have an 8 in 10 chance of patronizing an American library entirely bereft of these conservative periodicals. The shortage is more pronounced when one considers only the public libraries, to which most citizens have the easiest access.

If every conservative isn’t enraged by these facts, she should be. Although conscientious conservative scholars, who have access and funds to use almost any research library, may not be undone by this problem, what about the rest of us? College students doing term papers, eager young minds thirsting for knowledge, the casual reader, the avid collector, the politically uninformed, your local school board member—everyone is in some way influenced by the state of our nation’s libraries.

So what’s a conservative to do? We are fortunate to have smaller, subject-specific facilities like the Leonard Read Study Center at Wisconsin’s Carroll College; the Russell Kirk Study Center, in Michigan; the Institute for Humane Studies, at George Mason University in Virginia; the  (Ludwig von Mises Institute) , in Alabama; and the Shavano Institute (http://www.hillsdale.edu/extprog/extprog.html), at Michigan’s Hillsdale College. In such institutions one finds collections of certain conservative authors’ works, pamphlets relating to a specific conservative era or movement, journals relating to various conservative ideas. But the facility that strives to bring together every worthwhile conservative book, journal, video, or digital byte of information under one roof is nowhere to be found. That is, until now.

Conservative Nirvana

Imagine sitting down and listening to William F. Buckley Jr.’s oral history of the founding of National Review, or viewing President Reagan’s Berlin Wall speech. Then immerse yourself in the thoughts of conservative giants such as M.E. Bradford, Edmund Burke, Russell Kirk, Michael Novak, Sir James Fitzjames Stephen, and Richard Weaver. Encounter every conservative popularizer of the last few years and every conservative scholar of 300 years ago, along with biographies of conservative thinkers, detailed bibliographies, interactive videos, and more conservative history. Then browse through back issues of American Spectator, Human Events, and other conservative journals by the hundreds. Now imagine that you’ve just viewed all this from the comfort of your own laptop computer!

Where is this place? It’s only an idea now, but, with your help and the latest in information technology, the Electronic Conservative Clearinghouse Library (ECCL) could become a reality in a year’s time. Capitalizing on recent technological innovations, the ECCL would connect conservatives with all aspects of their ideology—paleo-, neo-, libertarian—and concerns—social, economic, religious. It places at everyone’s fingertips—literally—conservative information of every description.

The construction of a facility to house this much material would literally cost millions. At $175 to $180 per square foot (typical for libraries), even a modest facility of 50,000 square feet would top $9 million, excluding staffing and shelving costs. It would also take three to five years to build and another three to fill. At the end of eight years, you might have a facility of about 125,000 items, helpful mainly to those who live close enough to use it.

But a Web site for the Electronic Conservative Clearinghouse Library could be established for as little as $500,000 in as few as 12 months (see box). Electronic scanners, CD-ROM technology, and the Internet would permit the immediate proliferation of hundreds of thousands of pages of materials through the ECCL and Web sites the world over. All this activity would be driven by the most powerful Web browser available, making the offerings easy to download, e-mail, or print for future reference. Since the ECCL would be a nonprofit venture, the explosion of material would be offered free, as funding and copyright permitted. What would the Web site offer at the end of one year?

The Ingredients

Books. The ECCL would purchase 2,000 first-rank conservative books to scan and post on its Web site as downloadable files, beginning with those works now in the public domain. Initially, the ECCL would favor titles that are either out of print or currently backlisted by publishers. The ECCL director–librarian (a thoroughgoing conservative, naturally) would poll prominent conservatives for suggestions and make final selections. The choice of a director–librarian is essential. This venture must be governed by sound conservative scholarship and consistent conservative principles. The ECCL would be a serious site for lay persons and scholars alike to enjoy the many fruits of conservative labors.

Periodicals. The ECCL would begin with back issues of all small, conservative journals, starting with materials in danger of falling into permanent desuetude. Current issues and more widely known journals would be added gradually. The ECCL would also offer hotlinks to the many publications like Policy Review that are on-line already.

Audio and visual materials. More and more Internet sites offer audio and visual material such as speeches and TV clips, and the ECCL would be no exception. As the technology improves, this feature would become one of the most important of ECCL, especially for generations of conservatives now in diapers.

Resource location and retrieval. Some materials would be unavailable through the ECCL either because of copyright protection or prohibitive cost. Even those works available on-line are not necessarily preferable to the physical original. Could the ECCL help? You bet. Users of the ECCL could secure original materials via interlibrary loan agreements that have been in place in libraries since the 1940s. Through a comprehensive resource locator on the Web site, you would know within moments whether a copy of a certain work circulates at a nearby library, or whether interlibrary loan might retrieve it for you from elsewhere in the country.

Networking. To foster the exchange of ideas and research among conservatives, the ECCL would connect users to a host of on-line offerings, such as other Web sites, chat groups, listservs, bulletin boards, grass-roots activist groups, and more.

Hotlinks. With one click of the mouse, the ECCL would connect scholars and researchers to well-known research institutes, newspaper columnists, and other conservative sources of information. Dozens of institutions including Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, the Cato Institute, the Manhattan Institute, and the National Center for Policy Analysis post their worthy research on the Internet.

Indexes. Perhaps the greatest feature of the ECCL would be its capacity to search all its holdings for precise information through easy-to-use indexes, bibliographies, and search engines. Imagine being able to locate your favorite Buckley column from 10 years ago, a quote from Abraham Lincoln, or a list of and links to recent research papers on the flat tax. The ECCL would provide intrepid scholars with comprehensive bibliographies by subject and author of all material in print or available on-line and in other libraries.

Conservatives are already embracing the possibilities of the Internet revolution. Many conservative think tanks, publications, and grass-roots groups have Web sites for networking and disseminating research and information. Indeed, The Heritage Foundation’s Town Hall brings 35 conservative and libertarian organizations under one electronic roof. IntellectualCapital.com is a sort of on-line policy magazine of analysis and opinion with many conservative contributors.

Closer to the archival ideal, the American Freedom Library CD-ROM from Western Standard Publishing (sold through www.freedomlibrary.com) offers a sort of starter library for computer-owning conservatives: 260 books and 800 political and historical articles, research papers, and founding documents. But a collection of such CD-ROMs would make only limited material available to those willing to pay the price (the American Freedom Library CD-ROM costs $99.95). Moreover, CD-ROMs are not as durable as we once thought, and new generations of CD-ROM machines may not always be able to read old CD-ROMs. The ECCL will build on these budding efforts, linking users to CD-ROMs that archive conservative material.

The ECCL will eliminate the need to travel all over the country foraging for conservative materials. Conservatives will no longer need to supplement their own library with works the local libraries neglect to carry. The ECCL gives conservatives and other consumers better choices in the information marketplace by placing at their fingertips works either ignored or overlooked. Every conservative individual and entity—foundations, grass-roots groups, and think tanks—must help realize this dream. If not now, when? If not this, what? And who understands better than a conservative that ideas have consequences!