Books to Bytes: Libraries and the Internet

A presentation to the Inland Northwest Council of Libraries Director's Retreat
by Terry Abraham, University of Idaho Library, June 4, 1992.

Imagine, if you will, the typical university student of forty years back. In the library, open books spread out on the table, taking notes in a spiral bound notebook or blue three-ring binder; surrounded by the bibliographic edifices of the age: the card catalog, Readers' Guide, shelf after shelf of abstracts, indexes, and reference books. The student, however, is busy copying a page of text from a recent Look magazine article; copying machines are not yet available in this library.

Today's student, in contrast, is -- in many institutions -- working on a personal computer in the dorm room, with access thereby to several library catalogs, periodical indexes, encyclopedias and other reference books, and full-text of many magazine and journal articles. Using communications and word processing software the student can find text, extract a copy to disk, and insert it whole into the term paper.

What is striking about these two images? The physical shift of academic activities from the library to someplace else; the disappearance of the structure, the library building, and its contents. The emergence of the "virtual" library.

Virtual is one of those slippery words that has had its meaning changed by current usage. An older definition is still apropos: "Having the power of invisible efficacy without the agency of the material element" (Webster's Second). The new definition follows on that: the ability to get almost as much from a representation as from the real object. To go to the library without getting out of your chair and leaving the room.

We're not quite there yet. A message posted on PACS-L, the Public Access Computer Systems Forum (a LISTSERV on BITNET) notes: "The virtual library already exists and has for some time. There are no shelves as yet in the virtual library, the call numbers are strange and seem to have no relation to one another. The doors of the virtual library are locked and permit access only to a tiny elite who have the equipment to gain access. Catalogs and printed guides...are beginning to appear, but access to them is also difficult and limited...." (A.J. Wright, PACS-L, 25 February 92 10:39:55 PST). But access to the virtual library will soon become easier for all. And what are the consequences for the library, a construct of buildings, staff, materials; where will all these be when our customers start using the virtual library in earnest?

Some clues about the future are visible today. For instance, the computer has been likened to the printing press and the steam engine as an agent of significant social change. A recent television commentator dragged out the old story about how if autos had developed in the same way as computers, cars today would go a million miles an hour and get a million miles to the gallon. The rate of change in computers has been incredible, at a scale previously unknown, as this story indicates. But wait, it is even more phenomenal than that. When I first heard this story less than a decade ago, the numbers were hundreds, not millions.

So it is not just that things are changing rapidly, but that the rate of change is increasing rapidly. Planning for the long-term has to be both general and flexible; for tomorrow's unknowns will be here before we know it. Lewis Carroll described this perfectly when his Red Queen told Alice that it is necessary to run as fast as you can just to stay in one place (Through the Looking Glass. NY: Macmillan, 1966, p. 26).

There is no question that automation and networking are changing the world of publishing. The 2nd edition of the Directory of Electronic Journals, Newsletters, and Academic Discussion Lists (Washington, DC, ARL, 1992), already 50% larger than the edition published last year, includes almost nine hundred discussion lists, journals, newsletters, and other titles that are now distributed electronically. How many of these are "in" your library? How is the library providing bibliographic and "physical" access to these publications? How many do there have to be before we start providing access?

Things are changing, and not all are accelerating in a upward spiral. The growth curve for academic libraries is no longer Fremont Rider's parabola, doubling every sixteen years (The Scholar and the Future of the Research Library. NY, Hadham Press, 1944). Statistics from the Association of Research Libraries report a 15% drop in monographs purchased since 1986 (ARL news release, April 17, 1992).

The ability of government to support essential public programs has been eroded by decades of wasteful and inconclusive wars (on poverty, crime, drugs, Iraq). Those who propose limits on taxation claim "It's the principle, not the money" which, when decoded, means they are watching their pocketbooks, not yours. The sleight-of-hand that funds literacy programs in libraries, but not materials is from those who blame urban rioting on the lack of family values among fictional television characters.

The traditional self-educational role of libraries is also threatened by new technologies. For instance, institutions of higher education are increasing their emphasis on outreach or distance education. This is proving difficult for libraries which achieve economies through centralization. Electronic communication permits, even encourages, the decentralization of both information services and the educational experience itself.

And what about the changes in librarianship? Are there portents and patterns there? Have MARC and the bibliographic databases made an impact in our libraries? Do you still order cards from LC? The act of cataloging, in many institutions, has been redefined. Much of the workload formerly carried by professional librarians is now done by staff. The ability to accept without change the cataloging of other institutions has made a fundamental shift in the nature of cataloging practice. The cooperative nature of the new librarianship is best demonstrated in the Cataloging Department.

On-line data-services, such as DIALOG, which have been available for decades, are also undergoing a revolution. Libraries find that CD-ROMs of not-quite current and generally incomplete data have driven out the up-to-date, complete data found on-line. There are two obvious reasons for this: ease of use (by the user directly and not through a librarian intermediary) and lack of cost to the user. The illusion of access combined with meterless searching has resulted in long lines at the CD-ROM stations and only dust-bunnies in the index shelves. In addition, the fixed costs of CD-ROM are attractive to librarians, they ease budget-making.

But CD-ROMs are an interim technology also. CD-ROM searches will diminish as the customers choose ease of access (from their homes and offices) over comprehensiveness. And, as the on-line services migrate down to the newly available local electronic catalogs there will be a continuing decline in mediated searches.

This will also have an impact on the provision of reference services. Studies of information seeking have shown that people will ask friends and family for information before they will go to the library (Ching-chih Chen and Peter Harmon. Library Effectiveness in Meeting Information Consumer's Needs. in Library Effectiveness: A State of the Art. Chicago, ALA-LAMA, 1980. 54). Unmediated searching (or the open-stacks approach to data) will further reduce the reference load. However, it will not reduce the questions. The questions will lean more in the direction of, "What is the command to log a session to disk?" "What switches need to be changed to get a color display on my home computer?" "What are the commands to search only the last year of the database?" These are the electronic equivalent to "Where is the restroom?" Questions will focus on access and not information; there are seldom questions about the Boolean searching capabilities of the system. This characteristic of users (even librarian users) can be demonstrated by reading through a couple of days' worth of messages on the CD-ROM listservs.

Reference and cataloging are but two of the library functions that are undergoing change. Collection development has also been substantially altered by the availability of on-line systems. Not only is it easier to verify bibliographic information, but -- in a shared database -- it is particularly useful to see who else owns a particular book. Or does not own it.

The Great Conspectus Charade -- also made possible by automation developments -- has had much less of an impact on the development of library collections. The decision to purchase a book is still made one book at a time. And the time to make that decision is frequently seconds rather than hours. The changes in collection development are at root economic. At the University of Idaho, a few years back, we changed the name of the Collection Development Committee to Collection Management Committee as we had little money to develop the collection. Recent and ongoing serials cuts suggest another change: the Collection Dismemberment Committee.

Another area that has seen and will see a major sea change is InterLibrary Loan (ILL). At the University of Idaho, interlibrary loan transactions doubled in the first eight years of the eighties and have nearly doubled again in the following four years. And most of that increase in the last four years was borrowings. The 1990-91 ARL statistics, according to an ARL news release (April 17, 1992) show a whopping 45-47% increase in interlibrary loans since 1986. Does this answer the question, "What happens when you cut book and serial purchases?" (This also reflects a policy change at the UofI; users are no longer being charged back the ILL lending costs.)

We were quite amazed to discover the ILL request form embedded in the Lasercat software last year. The user finds that some other library owns the book, punches a button, and automatically generates an ALA approved ILL request form to turn in to the ILL office. (Where, of course, they transmit the message electronically on-line; but the original request is as verified as can be.)

The next step, of course, is for the user to send the request directly, without any intervention by the library staff. Librarians, protecting their turf (and their collection) will never let this happen, will they? But isn't that what CARL's Uncover2 does right now? Medical librarians were recently asked to "consider changing [their] ways" and mailing copies directly to the requesting user (National Network/Libraries of Medicine Supplement (May 1992) 3). Are other libraries ready for this? When they are we can change the name of interlibrary loan; it will no longer be "interlibrary" and will seldom involve the loan of library materials.

In this new environment, collection development will shift from "just in case" to "just in time" perhaps with better effect than General Motors. Providing information, rather than objects to be shelved, will become paramount.

Virtual libraries are but one manifestation of virtual realities. Again, a virtual library is a representation of reality, an abstraction. No matter how detailed, it can never be as rich as the real world. Books, themselves, it should be noted, are also representations of reality. And an encyclopedia could be considered an early example of a virtual library.

But what about the book? Books are human-centered, not machine-centered objects; will we lose that? Most of the pundits feel that the book will be around for some time to come, but that portions of the information will shift to electronic formats, some sooner, some later. As a representation, an electronic text (or E-Text) seems an unlikely substitute for a good book. However, when the Marketing Manager for Commercial Publishing at Apple notes in a panel discussion "We need to think about what the library of ten years from now is going to look like. I love books, but..." (Lisa Wellman, quoted in Color publishing, Publish, 7:6(June 1992)74,76) that "but" is the death knell for libraries. She goes on to say, "I do think that we need to look at getting the information accessible to people." Libraries that devote themselves to books -- and journals -- without regard for on-going developments in the information age will become sepulchral monuments. We must not, as Geoffrey Numberg cautions, "mistake the cultural content for the artifacts" (as reported by Jack Kessler in his account of the Bibliotheque de France conference, EXLIBRIS LISTSERV, 27 April 92 18:03:22). As an archivist, I have been battling the "dusty archives" image, and its implication of little-used, for years. Now, perhaps, it is the library's turn.

I am not suggesting that next year on the first of July all publishers will shut off their printing presses and go electronic. It will be more glacial, a little bit more snow this winter, a little less thawing next summer, and before we know it we have ice delivered door to door. Charles Robinson, in his prescient "The Public Library Vanishes" (Library Journal, (March 15, 1992) 54) describes a prototype "Bookbank" now in development in which users with a credit card extract electronic texts from a vending machine. Those working on this project plan on putting them in libraries; Robinson wonders why they think someone would go to the library to buy a text.

Raymond Kurzweil turned the question around and asked who would buy a book if you can borrow it electronically from a virtual library? The responses he received were quite instructive. One oracle noted that "no one should feel too secure in the information revolution." That is to say, it is impossible to impose boundaries during a revolution; neither publishers nor librarians should rest easily. The other response was more to the point: "the free library is not free." (Raymond Kurzweil, The Future of Libraries, Part 3: The Virtual Library, Library Journal, 117:5(March 15, 1992)63-64.) Someone pays, no matter what. The question is who and under what circumstances.

The key to this onslaught of electromagnetic impulses will be economic, not accessibility. OPACS that provide users with periodical indexes or other access tools currently shield the user from the costs. Electronic access is already being metered and libraries are spending large sums for passwords to databases. User fees are but one response to increasing costs of providing access. Such fees support the efforts of publishers to charge use fees on each article or book. In Britain, libraries pay a "use tax" based on circulation that recompenses authors for lost sales.

Copyright fees will be an essential ingredient in the new librarianship. The Copyright Clearance Center has started, among a number of pilot projects, a media campaign that suggests each photocopy machine should have a mechanism to collect royalties. The proponents of copyright reform, concerned about the ease of copying electronic information, are seeking methods to ensure payment for information as it is used. (David L. Wilson, "Critics of copyright law seek new ways to prevent unauthorized use of computerized information," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 6, 1992, A23-A24)

The other major library function, frequently overlooked, is administration. Have changes taken place in this area? Have these developments fundamentally changed how libraries are managed and administered? I believe the answer is no and not yet. As staff shrinks in size -- under pressure from lower budgets and the off-loading of more services -- fewer administrators are a possibility. On the other hand, the proliferation of titles and assignments may mean we will all end up as administrators. Let the machines do the dirty work.

Automation, particularly PC-based software such as spreadsheets and word-processors, has changed some of what is done but it has not yet restructured the whole institution. Local area networks, E-mail, and "paperless transactions" have yet to make inroads in most libraries. Will librarians become even more specialized and library units more "collegial" as a result? Will salaries increase sufficiently to attract the bright young professionals we would like to see in the profession? A public librarian on the cover of a recent Library Journal was quoted as saying that she had considered academic librarianship, but they wanted too many degrees and didn't pay enough in salaries (November 1, 1991, 48).

In the new electronic environment, some people will serve as "information surfers;" those on the leading edge of the information wave, "generalists...who can tease knowledge and understanding out of large information flows." (Paul Saffo, Surfing for information, Personal Computing, 13:7(July 1989)213). How many of them will be librarians? And how many of these will be self-employed contract labor, working at home with no fringes, no contract, and no annual salary.

There are no hard and fast answers to these questions. But they do suggest a few strategic planning tools for the future.

For library administrators, the allocation of funds is the basic high wire act. Spending priorities are the essential essence of planning.

That we are not likely to see any increase in budgets is a good place to start. However, those who remember the "boom" times of the sixties can recall that it was only in retrospect that those were "boom" times. Every gain required struggling, every increase was an attempt at catch-up as other areas literally "exploded." Prioritizing services is thus critical; if the money does start to flow again, let's spend it on established priorities.

But where will the increased flow of money come from? Will money follow the information? It is unlikely it will come from government, not in the near future. The users, who will be paying for much information directly, will resist support of centralized institutions. Fee-based services are one possibility, but are not yet professionally acceptable. More effort in fund-raising and development and the cultivation of friends groups and other supporters, is a good bet, at least in the short term. A library without a development effort in place is going to be left behind.

Where should the money be spent? It looks like more computers, more automation, and more networking would be a safe bet. Many analysts suggest that computer purchases should be accounted as consumables, not capital costs.

There will be an increasing shift from materials to services and most of those services will be outside the library. Until the accounting systems change, capital expenditures will be in equipment -- computers and telecommunications (which are headed for a merger), not just in books and journals. Instead of buying the intellectual content in covers, it will be leased from information providers.

Staffing will decrease substantially. Greatly under-appreciated and under-rewarded for their contributions to the institutional effort even today, they will -- in the face of redundancies -- become more militant. Quite a change for librarians and library staff. Increased automation will, as promised, reduce the staff. But not through savings and efficiencies. Automation requires more skills and more education; those people will need to be paid more. But the pool of money won't increase, so fewer people will be employed.

One way to maintain staffing levels would be through agreements to provide information services (like CARL's Uncover) on a fee or exchange basis. In the dim-dark past, libraries had the leisure to create and distribute bibliographies, guides to the literature, and other tools to assist the user. Becoming purveyors of information, for a fee, will keep some libraries fully staffed.

For a while, at least, there will be more borrowing and less lending. However, as more and more libraries cut back on the purchase of physical items, there will be fewer and fewer places to borrow from; not to mention that there will be fewer and fewer things published in that format.

There will be less reference and more teaching. Reference, as presently constituted, has never been cost-effective. As librarians we have unanimously held two contradictory ideas in our heads: that users are too dumb to find what they want and that they are bright enough to ask for assistance. In 1990/91 at UofI we had half a million bodies enter the building; less than ten percent asked any questions of the staff at all.

What we call bibliographic instruction has grown substantially in the last several years. And we're barely able to keep up with the new CD-ROMS and their varying software, let alone all the information services that will be opened up to the public on the new automated system.

Perhaps as a result of concentrating more effort on teaching and less on reference, academic librarians will -- at long last -- be acknowledged by the teaching faculty as colleagues. On the other hand, if librarians were primarily teachers, their workload would better accommodate the research they need to conduct in order to gain promotion and tenure.

While novels will continue to be published in hard copy for some time to come, public libraries will shift more of their budget toward alternate media. Video was just the first wedge of new formats. At the university, book and periodical purchases will continue to show more growth in the area of general works for the undergraduate and less growth in the area of specialized tools for the scholar. This is not the result of library efforts, the entire system of scholarly communication is moving onto the data networks. Those, like Science and Nature, which have been moving away from a general audience toward a more specialized one, will wither away. The remaining scholarly publications will increasingly look like a cross between Smithsonian and USA Today. And, of course, with fewer journals and books, we will have less and less need for a Serials Department or an Acquisitions Department.

The Cataloging Department is one area where staff will not decrease. It may not increase, but it will not fade away. This is because, in spite of what you have been led to believe, Recon is not yet done. For every book that has been entered into the system, a "bound-with" will demand attention. For every journal fully and completely cataloged, someone will find an analytic that needs to be entered. Whole classes of material once thought to be of low priority will have finally worked their way to the top of the pile and there will be advocates demanding that they be fully MARC cataloged.

On the face of it this sounds as if it is a prime area for some administrative prioritizing and decision-making. Do not make the mistake of assuming that because this stuff hasn't been cataloged before that it is too inconsequential to catalog now. All libraries, and especially academic libraries, have a wealth of important materials squirreled away which have never been adequately used because of lack of access. It will be important -- for the appearance of growth and the illusion of significance -- for libraries to take advantage of the existence of these wondrous materials and to parade them in the sun. Government documents, maps, archives, photographs, posters, ephemera, local publications and newsletters; all were important enough to keep, but -- given the problems of simply providing access to books and journals -- were never given full institutional support to make them accessible.

In addition, it will be the librarians who will create the virtual library by providing access to the "infoglut" (Byte's term, June 1992) on the networks. It will be the librarians who will make A.J. Wright's virtual library open to all by bringing them under bibliographic control. Among the first problems to solve is maintaining bibliographic links in an everchanging and ever changeable electronic environment, where statistics may be updated hourly, daily, or weekly; where text can be readily modified, and where images can be digitally enhanced.

We are seeing what may be the last major wave of construction of library buildings. The virtual library will need only a representation of a building. On campus, most users will not need to walk the several hundred feet across campus to the library; their needs will be provided at their desktop. Like the new Tres Grande Bibliotheque under construction in Paris, libraries will be balancing two roles: conservation of the existing collection, particularly where comprehensive or unique, and electronic dissemination of information (as reported by Jack Kessler in his report on the Bibliotheque de France conference, EXLIBRIS LISTSERV, 27 April 92 18:03:22).

It will still be necessary to provide seating in the library for student use. As is the case today, the library users of tomorrow will primarily use the library as a study hall. They will bring with them all they need to read, to study, to calculate, and to communicate. My original thought was that this will require a final remodeling task; one that would provide a data communication link at all user desks. But recent advances in cellular telephone technology make that unnecessary. Yes, everyone will bring in their own computer, or "hyperbook," but they will again be self-contained, needing neither power nor data. Vending machines for soda and candy will still be appreciated, however.

As expenditures shift from objects to activities to services, and incomes shift from governments to users, there will be an increasing effort to eliminate the middleman, the retailer. Mail-order computers have threatened IBM's lofty perch in the world of business; direct access by users to information sources may, if we are not careful, do the same to libraries. But libraries can still provide a useful service, for not everyone will have a direct connection to the network. A node at the local library will be a gateway to the larger virtual library. There is much discussion over whether the new high-speed computer networks currently being planned make provision for access at the local level or will they merely link major research centers? That this will cost money is not denied, and when we have public libraries in Idaho lacking telephones, it is hard to see how universal access to the network will be provided.

Charles Robinson adds one final guideline: "Give the best, most cost-effective service possible to the user with the resources and the technology we have. Cast aside those activities that are institution-oriented, because our institution is going to change, radically and rapidly...." And, he adds, "Follow the most user-oriented policies because we want users' support when the big change occurs." (Robinson, The Public Library Vanishes, 54)

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