Letter to Chronicle from John Gintell, Feb 13, 1997
To the Editor:
Technology enables libraries of the future to offer more info, services
As a member of the Cambridge Library 21 committee and chair of the Library 21 Technology Work group I'd like to share some points about how technology will impact the library. As background we take as a given that book publishing will continue to flourish into the 21'st century. We expect that all "traditional" library functions will continue and library usage will continue to grow. Other communities that have added a technology emphasis are seeing all forms of library usage grow even faster.
We must take into account two important trends. The first is the rapid influx of computer and networking technology into city organizations and people's homes. This will enable access to library services from outside of the library facilities themselves. The second trend is the transition from distribution of information in printed form to electronic distribution via CD-ROM and networks. Technology is needed to access this information, and since much of the information isn't free, the library is the obvious organization to be used to shoulder the costs and to provide the access. As the amount of such information increases, it will become even harder for everyone to search for what is wanted, identify additional sources and to evaluate the quality of sources. These are exactly the functions that librarians are trained for; thus, as the volume and complexity of the information increases, librarians will play an even more important role than now.
What do we mean by access to the library from outside? Today, via the Internet you can search the catalog and see the schedule of events; via telephone you can reserve and renew books, ask simple reference questions, and sign up for events. For just about everything else, you have to go to the library itself. With technology (hardware, software, services, and support personnel), there are many more services available from outside the library. You will be able to make extensive on-line catalog requests such as book reservation and interlibrary loan requests. You will be able to browse information about new acquisitions, perhaps seeing jacket covers and tables of contents, read book reviews, or other reader's comments. You will be able to make reference requests via email and collaborate with librarians on reference requests enhanced with desk-top video conferencing. What all of this does is allow city locations such as the Senior and Teen Centers, the School libraries and other places to act as mini library branches. For some of us, home and work access will be possible too, and can be done when the library is closed.
What about the transition of information distribution? A vast amount of reference information is available on CD-ROM and via the Internet. Some is free, but much of it costs money. Considerable information currently available in book form will soon only be available electronically. The US government is the world's largest publisher of information; its goal is to stop printing within the next few years. Encyclopedias in print may become extinct. The world's largest encyclopedia producer/publisher is Microsoft; its product is not a book. Britannica is now available on-line (for a fee). These electronic versions are easier to search (by yourself or with a librarian's help) and are kept up-to- date. Their content is "richer"; they contain movie clips and sound as well as all of the traditional text and pictures.
Reference books like Bartlett's Quotations have only what the publisher selects and book size limits the contents. In contrast, the World Wide Web provides access to a much larger amount of information (not all authoritative). Telephone books of other communities are a popular library item but take up 16 feet of book shelves; many are out- of-date. The phone books of the entire US is on the Internet and updated twice a year. Libraries contain back issues of magazines which take space. For example, the last 6 years of BYTE magazine on CD-ROM is stored in 1/2 inch of shelf space instead of 3 feet. With CD-ROM or on-line information, you can browse (with a librarian's help if you want), eliminate what you don't want, and then read or print it. Much is available from outside the library. Technology makes information searching more comprehensive, sharing and access more flexible, and affords economies in storage space.
Finally, we see a new important role for the library. Computers and network access are becoming more prevalent in people's homes, but not everyone can afford them, discover how to use them effectively, or keep them working. The library is the ideal place to make these facilities available to everybody - and this makes sense because the networked computer can be considered a form of book evolution.
In summary, we see that technology will give us access to library services from outside the library and will enhance and increase the quantity of reference information. The library can be the place where everyone can get access to computers and computer based information and the librarians will have an even larger role to play in helping us use these services.
John W Gintell
9 West Street
Cambridge, MA 02139