Future of Libraries

Note: This is article is dated. Written in 1998, it is good for those interested in the early days of digital library initiatives. They've come a long way in a short time since then.

by Moya K. Mason


Throughout the history of the world, libraries have been important institutions for the cultivation and preservation of humanity. Libraries are the repositories for humanity's knowledge; they are our past, our present, and our future. Cultural relevancies and temporal developments have always been deciding factors for determining the kinds of information collected. The Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans developed some of the greatest libraries known to the world, expanding far beyond the clerical and economic data stored in Sumerian libraries, to include many more forms of knowledge. Over the centuries, libraries continued to transform themselves to reflect the ever-changing needs of users. Today, libraries are much more than storehouses for books, journals, and newspapers, and include other forms of electronic data. One constant is that the universe of information is forever expanding and is continuing to do so at ever-increasing speeds.

Presently there is so much information in print that it is impossible to expect that individual libraries will have the funds to buy everything or the space to store it all. Has anything really changed? Almost one hundred and fifty years ago, Charles Jewett expressed concern that without one great library that everyone could take advantage of, the great dissemination of information and access to scholarly knowledge he envisioned would never become a reality (Jewett 1853,53). Can anyone say that a gifted student living in an outport in rural Newfoundland has access to all the information they need or are even aware that various books and research exists? The same can be said for an intellectual living on a small island in Greece. Jewett also believed that many books would not be written if their authors knew in advance that other very similar books already existed. If they knew, writers could spend their time on more constructive projects. He also insisted that scholars require the latest available data to produce worthwhile research and to stay on top of recent trends (Jewett 1853,55). Of course, that is the niche that academic journals fill, but the question must be asked again, has anything really changed? Many libraries can't afford to purchase the increasing numbers of expensive journals that are published each year, and in fact, there are universities who do not have a budget big enough to subscribe to the journals for which their own professors write.

Jewett's panacea was a union catalogue that would provide an interlibrary loan service to anyone who was interested. An admirable idea. As we know, important union libraries were eventually founded, including the Library of Congress, the National Library of Canada, and the British Union Catalog. But is the technology currently available to fulfil Charles Jewett's vision for universal access to all the knowledge the world has to offer? The terms digital libraries and virtual libraries are being used everywhere today. Are they the answer to some of the problems experienced by traditional libraries, or do they create problems that will never outweigh their benefits? Is there any common vision for the future of libraries? This essay will try to answer these questions, while presenting some of the most recent literature written on the topic. Libraries have arrived at a critical point in their history. Hopefully the direction they take will be based on careful consideration, keeping in mind both the near and distant future. What is decided upon in the next decade or so could mean the difference between carving a niche in the new frontier of an information society, and the dissolution of an institution that has been around in some form or another since the dawn of civilization.

The Question of Terminology

The technology that makes these terms more than the futuristic desires of men like Vannevar Bush has not been around for very long. Bush was writing at the end of World War Two and knew that the explosion of information resulting from the war would have to be organized and retrievable to be of any use to humanity. Nevertheless, many different challenges had to be overcome before any prototypes could be developed, including a reduction in the size of computers (the ENIAC prototype weighed thirty tons), and the creation of an effective networking system (Harden 1994,99). Both requirements have been met in the last forty years through the availability of powerful microcomputers with their higher speed modems, and the explosion of the Internet caused by the development of graphical browsers (Harden 1994,99).

Cheryl LaGuardia, Coordinator of the Electronic Teaching Center, Harvard College Library, maintains that the virtual library was promised since the 1970s, but "it became a contradiction in terms: there was no reality to it; it receded further with every hard look you gave it" (LaGuardia 1995,42). LaGuardia believes that the virtual library that could possibly close the doors of traditional institutions is nothing more than a "romantic pie-in the sky techie pipedream" (LaGuardia 1995,42). For her, virtual libraries will never be a reality, while digital library technology can become a part of the traditional library by supplementing resources with important digital products (LaGuardia 1995,43).

Digital libraries don't have to remain without walls. They can operate under the same directives and perform the same functions, and become integrated in traditional library settings. Nevertheless, as Cleveland states, it will be much more challenging than the introduction of videotapes ever was because of the fluidity of digitized information and its lack of a medium (Cleveland 1996,2). Adding digital information requires online databases and a great number of additional computers, but it doesn't stop there. Considerations have to be made for the copyright dilemmas that will certainly come up. Libraries are beginning to collect information in digital form that they may never be able to offer to library users if copyright barriers are not resolved (Cleveland 1996,2). Coupled with these restrictions are those involving cost of services (Cleveland 1996,3). Libraries try to offer most of their services free. Historically, they were built on Andrew Carnegie's vision of equitable library service for all sectors of society. Will digital information resources change this basic tenet? Some libraries have already applied user fees to their new databases.

One consideration is terminology. Do we discuss the terms digital libraries and virtual libraries separately or not? Initial research using Library Literature gave some insight. When requesting a single search for virtual libraries, the response was that the preferred terminology is digital libraries. Many writers use the terms electronic, digital, and virtual interchangeably. Some are on a quest for the ultimate library without walls that they call the Virtual Library; others see it as a futile dream that cannot be realized.

Gary Cleveland, Network Specialist for the National Library of Canada, explains that "[p]hrases like virtual library, electronic library, libraries without walls, and most recently, digital library, have all been used interchangeably to describe this broad concept" (Cleveland 1996,1). He also points out one of the common hazards of researching in the area, by saying that writers are using many different definitions to describe digital libraries. Included are the descriptions of digital libraries as computer repositories, collections of objects in digital form, and one that the National Library of Canada (NLC) finds quite realistic:

It is a library that carries out the traditional library functions of collection, preservation, and access provision, while integrating to an increasing degree, digital media and remotely accessible digital library services (Cleveland 1996,1).

Since these technological possibilities are so new, it is understandable that the terminology is equally so and misunderstood by many. There are no fixed definitions or rules yet for the vocabulary surrounding electronic libraries, and it is quite possible that these information resources may take on a completely new name, when and if they become relevant. For now, we can only muddle through and let each writer stand on their own merit, while providing interesting views on a bright new frontier.

An Overview of Current Literature On Digital and Virtual Libraries

The digital library was one of the main topics at the OLA's Super Conference II in Toronto in February 1996. The Director of Information Services for the University of Calgary, Alan MacDonald, began his discussion with an attempt to define digital libraries, asking if they are the same as virtual libraries, Internet libraries, electronic libraries, and libraries without walls. For him, the terms are interchangeable, with the only criteria being the ability to transmit over the Internet and receive information from it as well (MacDonald 1996,3). Additional requirements stipulate that this must be true for anyone at anytime, without the use of an intermediary librarian (MacDonald 1994,3). MacDonald cites online searching of bibliographic databases in the early 1970s and the introduction of online catalogues as precursors to the digital library, as well as CD-ROMs (MacDonald 1994,4-5). He says that it wasn't until the graphical browser was introduced a few years ago that digital or virtual libraries became possible, but the challenges do not end there:

We must not lose sight of the guiding principles that transcend the technologies and modalities of the day - imperatives such as the Alexandrian desire to preserve; the Medieval desire to share collectively; the democratic desire for the empowerment of knowledge; Panizzi's desire to organize systematically; and Vannevar Bush's desire to retrieve effectively and conveniently (MacDonald 1994,2).

Decisions involving storage and retrieval procedures are noteworthy, as is the fragility of storage media. It will not be the first time that libraries have to consider moving information from one format to another. Card catalogues, push cards, and beta videotapes have come and gone. Integrity of materials and copyright legalities are other considerations (MacDonald 1994,10-12). Walt Crawford maintains that copyright dilemmas and economic realities will assure that digital libraries will not adversely affect most publishing houses to any great degree (Crawford 1993,12).

In Living Books and Dynamic Electronic Libraries, Philip Barker offers his vision of digital and virtual libraries. For him, both are types of electronic libraries, but that is where the similarities stop. Digital libraries cannot contain any conventional books according to Barker because digital storehouses hold only digitized formats. In these new libraries, reader workstations and equipment for remote access will be necessary for users, and will include newspapers, journals, and books that are electronic (Barker 1996,494). Barker distinguishes virtual libraries as those that use virtual reality (VR) technology. Virtual libraries will allow users to manoeuvre in a library setting, with access to virtual librarians, virtual books, and virtual indexes (Barker 1996,496). He cites Treasures of the Smithsonian, published in 1993 on CD-ROM, as an example of what the future holds for libraries.

Writing in Information Technology and Libraries, Howard Harris uses the terms virtual, digital, and electronic interchangeably, and forecasts that it will take the next fifteen to twenty years for virtual library technology to become integrated into library services (Harris 1996,48). Libraries may already be offering access to a variety of databases, full Internet services, and "internet based digital information" (Harris 1996,49), and they will be expected to offer more virtual library services in the future. Dilemmas and conflicts associated with the allocation of funds for both traditional and virtual library services are expected (Harris 1996,50). Librarians will have to bridge gaps and help to rebuild their libraries in keeping with the virtual age (Harris 1996,50). They will be expected to continue upgrading their skills and learn to use new search tools for the creation of innovative libraries "in which a significant number of the users and the materials that they use may not be housed in the library" (Harris 1996,50).

Other writers have defined virtual/digital libraries as those that collect a variety of documents, magazines, and books in a machine-readable format, which can only be accessed digitally (Harden 1994,99). What this means is that a user can read and study materials that do not have any physical connection to them. Gary Harden writes that electronic library services are here to stay, and it is up to librarians to map out a plan, become better educated in the new technologies, and embrace the opportunities that are sure to be offered to everyone (Harden 1994,101). How many people have had the opportunity to see the Nuremburg Trial Papers before now? Project Janus is Columbia University Law School's digital library prototype. Its claim to fame is that it was the first library in the world to provide virtual library service through a supercomputer (Harden 1994,100). Besides offering users the latest in copyrighted editions, it links to tens of thousands of books and the university's archives. Virtual libraries will play a critical role in the dissemination of restricted collections and will contribute to their preservation (Harden 1994,100).

In many ways, Kay Cloyes' article, Journey From the Vision to Reality of a Virtual Library offers a synthesis for most of the literature on digital and virtual libraries. These new libraries of the not-so-distant future have names ranging from online, digital, electronic, desktop, virtual, and information superhighway. Virtual libraries can be as basic as online public access computers or as sophisticated as the technology will allow (Cloyes 1994,253). What they have in common is that "a virtual library implies electronic integration of new services with traditional library services" (Cloyes 1994,253). It is a way of using technology to give library users the latest and best information that is available electronically. Cloyes cautions that high costs of technology and maintenance requirements must be carefully considered and planned for (Cloyes 1994,254-255). Rising costs in one area of a library may have to be offset with cuts in other services. Librarians should investigate all options, and take advantage of the experiences of other libraries that have started similar virtual library projects (Cloyes 1994,253).

The other major consideration is how computer and information technology will change library spaces. Library planners will develop new designs to carry libraries into the 21st century. Margaret Beckman's Library Buildings, or Virtual Libraries? raises many issues in relation to how library buildings can integrate the new technologies and plan for future implementation. Very basic instructions are given for the conversion of book stacks into areas that can accommodate digital library resources, such as workstations, printers, and computers, along with the required electrical services (Beckman 1996,38). Provisions should be made for future loading capacities for floors in the range of 250 pounds per square foot, and the use of non-glare and task lighting (Beckman 1996,38-39). Finally, library users will also need space for their personal computers, and may expect the latest in ergonomic chairs to allow them a comfortable environment for hours of work (Beckman 1996,40).

When San Francisco's $137 million library opened, it was labelled the Library for the 21st Century. The library installed rooms for multimedia conferencing, multimedia workstations, three hundred high-speed computers, and a multi-lingual computerized database. Director Ken Dowlin says that though they are ready for the explosion of digital materials, the library's book collection is numbered at more than one million (Jeapes 1996,64).

Important Digital Projects

The NLC has a variety of digital projects underway. One is Out of this World: Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy, and another that provides an overview of the life and times of classical musician Glenn Gould. One of the more fascinating is North: Landscape of the Imagination, which presents Canada's north from an artist's perspective. The digital collection was put together using NLC's books, magazines, manuscripts, paintings, and music. All of the digital information is put in digital storehouses that Cleveland describes as "fragile, with limited lifespans" (Cleveland 1996,3). Libraries may have to move preserved information from one system to another, updating as technology improves (Cleveland 1996,3). What is impossible to know is how much money it will cost, and how much information will be lost in the transfer.

A number of significant American digital projects that should also be discussed. Funded by the United States Congress, the Library of Congress, and both private and corporate sponsors, the National Digital Library is a consortium of fifteen of America's largest research libraries and archives, which are creating digital libraries. Included are Cornell, Yale, Harvard, and Pennsylvania State. They are digitizing documents of all kinds and making them available to the public over the Internet. The Library of Congress' personal contribution is called American Memory, which uses archival materials and primary sources to create projects on such things as the Civil War and American Architecture.

Also deserving of mention is the high profile research development called the Digital Libraries Initiative Projects that is jointly funded by the National Science Federation (NSF), the Department of Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The initiative incorporates six research universities that are developing digital storehouses of information for the Internet. Their aim is to make retrieval, processing, and searching user-friendly and more organized (Griffen 1997,1). The University of Michigan is digitizing earth and space materials; the University of Illinois is designing a digital library for engineering and science literature; the University of California at Berkeley is concentrating on environmental studies; Carnegie Mellon University's team is working on the access and retrievability of digitized math and science materials from video archives; and the University of California at Santa Barbara's Alexandria Project is designing a digital library for spatially-indexed information like maps, atlases, and gazetteers (Griffen 1997,3-10). Since very few research libraries are fortunate enough to have such a collection of any size, and since the available digital forms are not very accessible, the Alexandria Project is attempting to put them online (Goodchild 1995,1). Finally, Stanford University is using its four million dollar grant to develop the technology for an "integrated Virtual Library that will provide access to large numbers of emerging information sources and collections" (Jeapes 1996,63).

The Library of Virginia completed Phase 1 of its Digital Library Project by scanning more than 600,000 images, including a collection of rare family bibles. Phase II and III will add one million archival and historical images to their collection (Jeapes 1996,63).

An interesting project sponsored by the School of Information and Library Studies at the University of Michigan is called the Internet Public Library. Opened in 1995, it is researching ways to incorporate public library traditions with Internet resources, and is investigating how librarians can find their niche in a digital world through retraining. The interface of the Internet Public Library gives the visitor options for reference, librarian services, a virtual children's room, and an exhibit hall. The links include social service information sites and teen help resources (Balas 1996,49). In Building Virtual Libraries, Janet Balas talks about the possibility of building virtual libraries that include traditional library services (Balas 1996,48).

Conversion of large volumes of materials for use in a digital library is a huge undertaking as the IBM-sponsored, monumental project carried out by Case Western Reserve University has shown. The impetus for the project came from a group of Latin American scholars who wanted access to the Vatican Library for research, but were hampered by the reality of travelling to Rome and gaining admittance to the famous library with its closed stacks. The Vatican Library has a priceless collection of rare manuscripts, books, and pictures, including early copies of Aristotle and Homer. Faculty members of the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro asked for access through the Internet (Mintzer 1996,3). The Vatican gave its consent only with the assurance that environmental conditions would be carefully monitored to protect the items while the scanning took place. It also insisted upon some form of digital protection for the online materials. F.C. Mintzer and his colleagues had five goals when they went to the Vatican to digitize a portion of the collection: to create and capture, to store and manage, to search and access, to distribute, and to use rights management for the project (Mintzer 1995,1). It took a team of six an entire year to reach their goal of 20,000 images, scanning an average of eighty items a day (Mintzer 1996,26).

Mintzer's Vatican team documented the many problems they experienced and created a learning tool for others. Besides the difficulties of developing multi-server systems, the ability to faithfully capture true colours, and the concerns of copyright protection, there was the problem of how to create tools scholars need to locate and study the digitized images (Mintzer 1996,1). The team also ran into problems deciding how different materials should be presented to users, and faced the challenges of handling fragile and valuable materials for scanning purposes. They see digital libraries as having the same fundamental goals that traditional libraries do, but the technology allows for additional services that provide a new realm of possibilities for users (Mintzer 1996,3). Mintzer is quick to add that there are no digital libraries in existence to date, because that "implies a massive amount of managed information, only many prior projects that have contributed to our knowledge of them" (Mintzer 1996,2). He forecasts that large-scale digital library service will be in place for universities within five years and for the public in ten (Mintzer 1996,2).

Other important work in this area is being carried out by the University of California at Berkeley, under the project name Berkeley Digital Library SunSite. An example of their endeavours is California Heritage, which provides thousands of digitized images of Californian history from their archives.

Concluding Remarks

A common vision is offered in the latest literature. Researchers, librarians, computer experts, and library school academics may have slightly different perceptions of what electronic libraries will look like, how they will function, their physical surroundings, and the degree they will infiltrate traditional libraries. Regardless, all agree that expanded electronic library service is needed, possible, and will resolve some of the problems that are fundamentally affecting libraries today. With limited funds and a lack of storage space, libraries are experiencing some of their worst times in recorded history and find it increasingly difficult to maintain large self-sufficient collections for users. Libraries, such as the D.B. Weldon Library at the University of Western Ontario, are even sinking with the weight of books, many of which will never again be seen on the public stacks. Having electronic versions of materials such as encyclopaedias, reference resources, and journals would be very beneficial for libraries and their patrons. Other added bonuses are that many people can use digitized items at the same time, and their authors can easily update them. By their very nature, CD-ROM versions are not as valuable a resource. Librarians have to keep buying the updated versions, and they can only be used by one person at a time.

The other interesting theme running through a lot of the literature on digital libraries is a general acclaim for the technology by librarians, even though librarians' jobs and workplaces will undergo drastic changes. Librarians know that numerous problems associated with fund allocations, copyright laws, storage, authentication, and protection of digital information resources have to be faced and overcome, but they intuitively understand the value that digital resources can bring to the lives of library users. Users have always come first for the men and women who dedicate their lives to the dissemination of information. Some people may worry that libraries will go the way of the horse and carriage, but librarians instinctively know their services will always be needed. Walt Crawford agrees. He has words of wisdom on the introduction of digital information:

Libraries have never been the sole, or even the primary source of information for people. Good libraries serve many niches, but they never served as universal sources, and they never will ... by and large, the new complements the old. Print did not destroy the oral tradition, radio did not destroy newspapers. Television changed radio, newspapers, and movies but didn't destroy any of them. Home video changed the motion picture business but motion picture studios take in more money than ever (Crawford 1993,11).

Libraries will find their niche, if they remain flexible and continue to provide exemplary service in whatever format users desire. The reality is that there will always be people who prefer to walk into a library to borrow a book, rather than download every book they want to read. As well, there will be many who can never hope to have the technology at home to access a truly virtual universal library. What will happen to those people? Jewett's dream of a universal library is within our grasp, and it can only be a good thing to tap into previously valuable and unavailable digital collections. The downside is that libraries and individuals will need the proper technological equipment and training, and some will not be able to afford them.

Related Papers

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Ethics of Librarianship: Libraries, Intellectual Freedom, and Censorship in the Age of Technology
Post-Fordist Librarians: Globalization of Information, Corporate Ideologies, and Ethical Conundrums


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Beckman, Margaret. 1996. Library Buildings, or Virtual Libraries? Feliciter, Vol. 42, pp. 37-40.

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Harris, Howard. 1996. Retraining Librarians to Meet the Needs of the Virtual Library Patron. Information Technology and Libraries, Vol. 15, No. l, pp. 48-51.

Interactive Digital Video, Visualization, and Virtualization: What's the Future?

Jeapes, Ben. 1996. Digital Library Projects: Where They are Now, Part Two. The Electronic Library, Vol. 14, No. l, pp. 62-64.

Jewett, Charles C. 1853. Smithsonian Catalogue System, pp. 48-61 in Foundations of Cataloguing, ed. by M. Carpenter and E. Svenonius. Littleton: Libraries Unlimited. 1985.

LaGuardia, Cheryl. 1995. Virtual Dreams Give Way to Digital Reality. Library Journal, Vol. 120, No. 16, pp. 42-44.

MacDonald, Alan H. The Digital Library: Preserving Values in a Digital Revolution. Ontario Library Association, Super Conference II, February 8, 1996.

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