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11/28/00- Updated 10:20 AM ET

A peek at the library of the future

By John Makulowich, special to 

Row upon row of books, manuscripts, magazines and papers indexed by card catalog and housed in a dimly lit chamber a musty memory of what libraries used to be.

In libraries built today, books take up less and less space replaced by audio recordings and videotapes, CD-ROMs, databases, computer terminals and networks linking remote resources via the Internet. 

Some in the younger generation my 18-year-old son, Sean, among them can count on two hands the number of times in their lives they set foot in a library, now commonly called an "information center." 

If you seek an image of the swift change wrought by the Internet and information technology, the sign of the digital times hangs by tape on the front door of the local library. It reads, "Starting December 1, all patrons will be restricted to one hour on terminals connected to the Internet."

Inquiring about this change in policy, I discover that abuses of the system range from teenagers trawling chat boards for hours on end to people running their e-businesses full time at taxpayers' expense. 

At one extreme stand working parents who view the library as alternate day care; at the other, small business owners who seek a way to defray research and communications costs.

This portrait does not surprise James O'Donnell, vice provost for information systems and computing as well as a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania. He also chaired the committee responsible for the recently published report LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress (National Research Council).

After all, O'Donnell quickly points out, college students are already running their own businesses over university networks.

However, what does intrigue O'Donnell and which is a subject of the committee report is the dramatic change in the intellectual role of libraries caused by the explosive growth in digital information.

The paradigm of the Western library the features that make it distinctive, like widely and freely available information and strong research and rare book collections is being transformed. The outcome remains fuzzy.

Indeed, how is information technology likely to alter the landscape for libraries in the years ahead, especially for the end user?

O'Donnell gives two answers. One, the library of tomorrow will look a lot like whatever you have in your hands or at your fingertips to access information. Simply stated, much of what we did traditionally in library buildings we will do beyond their walls. Gone will be the days of limited access of buildings open only 12 hours a day seven days a week and 24-7 will rule.

The second answer addresses the library layout a front as well as a back of the house. The back section will get more complex, more expensive and more challenging to build and maintain. Why? Because it will house the more sophisticated talent and equipment that make the flashy resources in the front available.

The front of the library will undergo a social change. Not only will it be a place where trained professionals help you organize your assault on information, but it also will increasingly be a place where people go to work on and work with information together. This change is already evident in colleges and universities.

I vividly recall seeing a few years ago the eerie glow on the faces of eight students at Thunderbird, the country's oldest Master of International Management Program in Glendale, Ariz. The graduate students were hunched over their laptops in the lunch room while working on a team project all with umbilical-like cords tied from their computers into network jacks along the walls.

Other social changes lie ahead that will define and deflect the effect of technology. A case in point is whether we will depend on people bringing their own hardware to the information center or on the campus supplying it.

On the cellular phone model, will we carry a wireless network information appliance that we use for most purposes, including information gathering? Or on the pay phone model will we walk around empty-handed in the belief that any time we need a machine one will be handy? Library staff are already finding the pay phone model deficient; the potential use is well beyond what campuses can reasonably be expected to provide.

For O'Donnell, the interesting wave will form in the next one to five years, when data, voice and video converge in one master network. Then we will use more video and integrate more physical talk with our data connections.

In fact, O'Donnell believes that the golden age of e-mail might soon come to an end. Marking its demise will be the ability to talk to people live on the Internet as well as to easily leave long voice messages. This will create the need for a whole new etiquette of when to send e-mail or when to leave a recording of what you meant to say. That in turn will lead to new problems with archiving.

The issues multiply simply because the quantity of information generated will not allow one person to work through it in a lifetime. As more audio and video materials are created and used, we will face a critical challenge: how we preserve our cultural past when we think about what it is we are preserving.

You get a taste of this information glut from a new Web site started by the University of California at Berkeley called How Much Information? Researchers there estimate that the world's total yearly production of print, film, optical and magnetic content would require about 1.5 billion gigabytes of storage equal to 250 megabytes per person for each man, woman and child on Earth! 

For more information:

How Much Information?

LC21: A Digital Strategy for the Library of Congress

Librarians' Index to the Internet

The Library of Congress

OCLC Online Computer Library Center

James J. O'Donnell's Web site

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