Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Libraries' Future Hooked to On-Line Capacity Their Traditional Role of Providing Access to Information Has Increased since the Introduction of Computers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Libraries' Future Hooked to On-Line Capacity Their Traditional Role of Providing Access to Information Has Increased since the Introduction of Computers

Article excerpt

From the Library of Congress to small public libraries in distant corners of the United States, computer technology is inexorably changing the way people seek out knowledge.

Old card catalogs, where patrons stood fingering through drawers of 3-by-5 cards, are already fossils in many communities. "Our catalog's been on-line for seven years," says Patricia Oyler, a professor of library science at Simmons College in Boston and a consultant to the Wellesley, Mass., public library.

The search software used in the library, Professor Oyler explains, enables people to easily find items in the catalog if they have even one key word. With the old cards, an author's full name, or the full title of a book, was needed.

A priority for most busy public libraries, says Oyler, is automation of their circulation systems, the heart of a library's business. Lending, renewal, and overdue records go from stacks or boxes of cards to electronic files. And the know-how gained from that transition, Oyler says, flows into the computerization of the book catalog.

Other computerized services include interlibrary loans and access to large data networks, such as the Internet, which can peer into catalogs anywhere in the US or the world. for that matter.

The ultimate in transfer from paper to bytes - putting whole collections of books and manuscripts on line - is currently out of reach technically and financially for most traditional libraries, but it is definitely on the screen. The Library of Congress is spearheading a move toward "virtual" libraries with the National Digital Library Project, which will put millions of items from its collection - books, historic manuscripts, drawings - in digital form.

The first phase of the project, scheduled for completion in the year 2000, will produce digital copies of some 5 million archival items - Civil War records and photographs, for example. These materials will be accessible to the public through computer terminals in libraries, schools, or at home. Many of them will probably also be published on CD-ROM. The $20 million or so needed for the project's initial phase is being raised from private foundations.

The Library of Congress may be the largest, but it's hardly the first institution to move toward a digital collection. Much of the private sector has already traveled far down that road. Many companies, such as US West, have put millions of pages of internal documents on line. Electronic look-up systems were pioneered by corporate librarians, says James Matarazzo, dean of the graduate school of library and information science at Simmons.

Professor Matarazzo says, however, that the concept of "virtual libraries" can easily be overplayed. He doesn't expect to see libraries go totally electronic anytime soon. …

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