The People Speak: The Dispersion and Impact of Technology in American Libraries

Article excerpt

What is the status of technological applications in American libraries? How much "technology" do most libraries of all types and sizes really have? Does the literature, which delineates many success stories, accurately represent the status of implementations? What technological challenges are faced by practioners in the field--people who work in underfunded and understaffed libraries and spend each day trying to deliver the best service possible given their resources? How close are libraries in the United States to reaching their technological goals for delivering information services to users? Does every library have everything it needs? What are the problems and the challenges presented by technological applications? These are the questions posed in the authors' survey discussed below, and the picture that emerges is most interesting.

Recent Surveys

During the twentieth century, technology has played an increasingly influential role in the dissemination of information. Early microfilm collections and automated circulation systems have given way to OPACs and CD-ROMs, which in turn will evolve or be replaced by more sophisticated innovations. Large academic and research facilities are now almost entirely dependent on technology, but even small special and public libraries can hardly function without computers, modems, CD-ROM readers, fax machines, and other equipment.

In the late 1980s, a number of surveys investigated the dispersion and utilization of technological applications in libraries and information centers. In the spring of 1989, for example, John Berry discovered that based on a survey of 2,000 Library Journal subscribers (with 1,003 responding), "more than 60 percent of the facilities either have an integrated system or will buy one within two years." Circulation followed by automatic cataloging are the modules most frequently cited. Berry notes that "more than 86 perent" of the respondents have microcomputers, which are used in many ways, but especially for word processing. The most interesting finding is that many institutions have had to upgrade their systems, often not long after the initial installation.(1)

A 1989 survey of 294 OCLC facilities shows that 97% use microcomputers, a "tenfold increase" since 1983. A similar change is indicated for compact disk usage: a rate of 6% in 1986, when on average each library had but one product, to 66% by 1989, when the total had increased to five products. InfoTrac, ERIC, Psychological Abstracts, Books in Print, and Academic Index are the top five items used. Finally, 52% of these libraries use fax machines, primarily for ILL transmissions.(2)

A series of 1987, 1988, and 1989 surveys of 16,547 American and European libraries, with return rates varying from 20% to 44%, shows that about half of the American and only 9.5% of the European institutions use optical products. Although the important American CD-ROM materials are used in Europe, none of the European items, e.g., Myriade or Verzeichnis lieferbarer Bucher, are used in the United States.(3) This is a detailed report and it deserves further scrutiny.

In August 1989, the Special Libraries Association surveyed its 10,695 members. The study was designed to assess the current status and impact of technology, project short term technological requirements of the membership, and help plot future directions for developing technological tools and applications. Four thousand one-hundred sixteen individuals returned the survey, a response rate of 38.4%. Of the 33 technological uses, word processing was cited most often (88.7%), followed by online searching (87.3%), fax (72.8%), and telecommunications software (70.3%). Only 33% of the respondents use CD-ROM products. The application of technologies was perceived by 88.9% to increase the level of service provided, and 75.9% of the respondents perceived a greater level of user satisfaction as a result of technological applications within their operations. …