Looking for a Future Library

How Will Digital Technology and Digital Culture Change Our libraries, and Librarians?

by Matthew Jordan

In his 1996 book Being Digital (Vintage Books), Nicholas Negroponte, Professor of Media Technology at MIT, forecasts a shift in the way we access information. As more information is made digital (put into electronic ‘bits' instead of atoms) it will become astoundingly easy for us to get the information we want.

With digital information comes the advantage of having the first few bits of an information stream tell what the following bits have to say. These 'headers' (as Negroponte calls them, 'bits about bits') will let our TVs, radios, and computers filter out the information we want. It's the same technology which lets you 'skip' songs on a CD player.

Digital television will be the next bit-based information stream, working in much the same way as our Internet already does -- we will receive TV shows like email. The same can happen with newspapers, magazines and books online. The information we want, in what ever form, will be smart enough to find us, delivered like milk to our doorstep. We will not have to go out and look for the information that interests us.

Another shift, in addition to new accessibility, challenges our traditional libraries and librarians. In The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (University of Chicago Press, 1993), Richard Lanham predicts 'a movement from the fixed and silent signal of the printed book to a richer but more volatile signal -- writing + voice + image -- of digital display.' With the new technology, not just our texts, but also our culture, will become more visual. While technology allows such changes, it doesn't offer any simple solutions. Lanham compares 'dealing with the superabundant flow [of digital information] to drinking from a firehose.'

The existence of a physical book even comes into question. In his foreword to The Future of the Book (University of California Press, 1996), editor Geoffrey Nunberg concludes simply that 'if we take the book in its broad sense to refer simply to bound, printed volumes, then most books will likely disappear soon.'

Though Nunberg qualifies his statement about the disappearance of books, and Negroponte and Lanham only theorize about a future no one can know, the introduction of digital technologies will certainly change, somehow, not only the form of our information, but also the way we store, present, and access it. As our information changes, so will our libraries -- and librarians. The change has already begun. Where it will end is the question.

Reverend Stephen Almagno, Professor of Library and Information Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh, prepares librarians for a career which, he believes, 'is up for grabs.' Since he started teaching 25 years ago, Reverend Almagno's syllabus has changed greatly. His class The History of Books, Publishing, and Printing, used to conclude with techniques of modern printing, but now it ends with the Internet and CD-ROMs as book forms, and with the ethics involved in full-text search engines.

In addition to informing his students about how people store and use information, and how to facilitate that process in libraries today, Reverend Almagno also raises questions to his students about why they want to enter a profession which could change beyond recognition, and possibly cease to exist, in the near future.

'Why the hell do students enter a profession that is totally changing under their noses? How can they make a library user-friendly if people don't like technology and have no choice that it is here? What do they expect to find? Why do they come?'

With such questions, the future of libraries is being decided. As the students address the instability of their profession, they develop ideas of what libraries could be -- a blending of what a student would like to see, and what technology might allow or force. These ideas are possible blueprints for future libraries, as the students of programs like LIS will shape our libraries in the years to come. Included in Reverend Almagno's questioning is the hint that the future of libraries is for the future librarian, not just technology, to decide.

Steven Wukovitz, a first year graduate student in LIS at the University of Pittsburgh, has been working through the issues Reverend Almagno has raised.

With an bachelor's degree in history from Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania, Wukovitz's ideas about the future library include how libraries might preserve the past as well as introduce the future, and how the public, as well as librarians, must deal with the institution's shifting technology and shifting role in society.

'In a narrow sense, there will be a need for libraries, because there will always be someone who wants to see the actual work. Maybe on the Internet there is a book translated from Italian. But what happens if someone wants to see the original book and do his own translation?

'And maybe there is a historian who wants to go back and look at a letter from the Renaissance… he'll want to see the actual scripting of the words, how it was printed, what it was pressed on, what color wax seal was used… he won't want only to see the text, the only thing allowed in digital medium, but also all the other sensual things which tell about the culture from which the letter came. If I'm a serious historian, I'll want to fly to Venice and hold that document in my hands, to really see what the culture was like.'

'People will always want objects from their past preserved -- for sentimental value if nothing else.'

'I understand the sentimental value of libraries and the books in them. But I don't agree with the the stereotype of a librarian as a holder of books… I think of a librarian as a holder of ideas in any form -- book or parchment or electronic.'

'A lot of the information coming in is still in print, and we still have papers and letters and historical documents which need to be catalogued. But maybe part of our responsibility of making information accessible to everyone, part of our tradition of ‘access,' is to ‘be digital'… the future library might actually be a building filled with file servers and people sitting behind terminals thinking up ways of effectively organizing and presenting ideas, if they are in text, audio, or visual form. Maybe libraries will be the very place where information is turned digital.'

Barbara Rockenbach, another first semester LIS graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh studying with Reverend Almagno, is also a part-time reference librarian at Carnegie Mellon University's Hunt Library. Rockenbach thinks about how to teach partons the technology the library itself uses.

'Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft, has a theory called the acceptance threshold, when people come to accept a new innovation or technology. After reaching the threshold, the new technology is common -- getting there is the difficulty. At a certain point, after that threshold has been crossed, the choice between the old and the new has been made for us. We won't be able to go back.'

'For example, think about a record store. Right now we have music in many forms, cassette, CD, records, vinyl -- but we don't have eight tracks. We can't go back. The acceptance threshold has been crossed, and certain things will fall out of being.'

'We are at the same point in libraries, where we have the old and new right next to each other. There are card catalogues next to online catalogues, though the card catalogues are being phased out.'

'If we are now in a time where there are remnants of the old and some of the new, it is a time of uncertainty. A professor came in once and asked 'Where can I find the social science index? This print version only goes until 1991.' I explained to him that after 1991 it is an electronic version. He wanted to know if the coverage in the electronic version was the same as the print. He was afraid that if he went to the electronic version he would miss something. The coverage is actually the same, it is that you have to trust the electronic version more.'

'We are comfortable with what we know. Here is a professor who has probably done print searches for twenty years. Now he is faced with this new technology that he has not been trained on, and isn't confident with. This is where the role of the librarian is important. We are trained in this new technology and it will be our role and our responsibility to teach people how to use these new tools. It is not as comfortable to go up to a computer and learn your way through it, trial and error, as it is with a print index. We grew up with print.'

'But I think of the digital technologies in a positive way. Each new development in the history of communication has further democratized information. From oral traditions to print, to the printing press, now to electronic communication -- you can reach more people. It is very positive that someone who may never have taken an interest in art can now access it. In a way it is this great bank of knowledge, and people might be more comfortable going to it from their computers at home.'

'One issue the new technologies do bring up is preservation. Do you preserve old books that are acid damaged, brittle, in poor condition? The new technologies answer to that is ‘no,' we don't preserve the objects, we digitize them so people will still have access to them. The information of the objects can still be accessed digitally.'

'But if that is the case, where does that leave our libraries? Are our libraries going to become just warehouses for old objects, actually museums? Will the term 'library' primarily be used for 'a place where old communication artifacts are stored?"

'It's a definite possibility. But if we see that now we have to ask ourselves ‘what are the other functions of a library?' If that 'warehouse' scenario is a possibility, we have to ask what will be lost. Is a library a community? Is it a place for people to go?'

'An interesting parallel to that is to look at the popularity of bookstores right now and the popularity of coffee houses that have access to the Internet. Why are these places so attractive? People like to go and look at books, they like to socialize, they like to go and have coffee, some like to try out new technologies.'

'So if this is true, if this is the climate of our time right now, then why can't we as a profession make a library that place? Why can't we learn from the Internet cafes, the Barnes and Nobles, the Borders? Maybe we need to change our definition of what a library is. Maybe we don't want it to be a warehouse for old stuff. Maybe we want it to be a place in the community where people can go and drink coffee, can go to an electronic database and find out about things, can email, can exchange ideas. Maybe we need a paradigm shift.'

'It is up for grabs that librarians will be checking out books. What isn't up for grabs is that new technologies are evolving and that people will need to learn them.'

'It's not a question of if the new technologies are good or bad, it is a question of how we can make our jobs, our profession adaptable to what people need. I may not be the librarian you grew up with, but I think there will always be a need for help.'

'I am interested in providing people with access to information. I don't want to see librarians as pack rats of information. I want to work in a place where, if you want, you can gain wisdom, you can get information in any form and you can learn. 'Librarians' are a resource, they help people get information. There will always be a need for that.'

In fact, there is no answer to how libraries or librarians will be changed by digital technologies -- society itself is unsure what these technologies will be in a few years, or exactly how they will be used. But the technologies are here. The future library, unknown to us now, does exist somewhere in the minds of the people who will be building, changing, and maintaining them in the years to come.

Costing More Than Money?

Changes at the San Francisco Public Library's New Main reflect the shift to a digital culture and the problems it can create for libraries. SFPL's New Main, opened this summer at a price of $134 million, boasts 300 computer terminals with public access to library databases and the Internet. But the move from the Old Main to the New and the addition of the digital resources might have cost more than money. In the October issue of The New Yorker, Nicholson Baker accuses the SFPL of destroying or giving away 200,000 books to make room for the computers in the new building. Baker sued the Library.

Unlike the situation in San Francisco, the Carnegie Public Library of Pittsburgh has been changing without controversy or court cases. The CPL has installed over 70 terminals with network connections for the public, and offers classes eight times a month on how to use the Internet.

In contrast to the quick and thorough changes in the San Francisco and Carnegie libraries, the Harold Washington Library, part of the Chicago Public Library system, has been tentative to restructure. Included in the library building, built in 1991 and costing $144 million, are a coffee shop, a spacious area for art exhibits, a restaurant, the 'Winter Garden' atrium on the top floor with a glorious view of the surrounding downtown skyline, and eight floors of books -- but only two computers with Internet connections for public access.

Obviously, the city system's goal of having a library accessible to every citizen by a 15 minute walk doesn't include the Internet. Though the library is scheduled to equip the facility with more terminals to access digital information, no date or exact number of computers has been set.