How far will

libraries go as they

turn increasingly

to electronic

information

resources?

Picture a researcher somewhere in the United States entering the Chicago Public Library in cyberspace -- via computer, modem and a telecommunication point of service -- to utilize its information access tools. He connects to the library's home page, enters his query and waits for an expert system to process the request. A selection of materials appears almost immediately. He then downloads the relevant volumes and has completed his information search without ever physically entering a library.

The idea of the virtual library -- a set of information resources made accessible over computer networks without restrictions of time and place, where users can simultaneously access the same information -- has captured the imagination of millions of library users over the past several years.

In this virtual library, resources may have no physical counterpart. Holdings may consist of a synthesized collection of links to other sites -- where actual data is stored -- or of Web pages created as original work.

Technological change has always been a way of life for libraries. Librarians have embraced information technology since the early 1960s, and are meeting the digital revolution head on, transforming library services. While the "virtual" library described above is still a utopian fantasy, the digital library of today -- a physical library where bytes augment books -- is a reality; one in which many holdings are found on electronic stacks. These holdings may be World Wide Web pages, CD-ROMs, or online services. By offering patrons remote access to these holdings, libraries serve a much larger audience.

DIGITAL HOLDINGS GROW

The promise that technology will revolutionize the library is not a new one. Even small public libraries are making some research tools available digitally. Palm-sized CD-ROMs contain books and encyclopedias that previously took up bookshelves of space. They make reference searches simpler and faster.

The American Library Association's (ALA) 1996 Technology in Public Libraries Survey found that 94 percent of public libraries, serving a population over 100,000, offer CD-ROM products for patron use inside the library. In addition, 28 percent of these libraries allow patrons remote access to CD-ROM reference tools, which they can download from home.

More importantly, public libraries are making some of the most useful and frequently requested information, such as online catalogs, available electronically. In the 1996 ALA technology survey, 90 percent of public libraries said they offer online public access (OPAC) to their collections. Of these libraries, 74 percent offer modem access to their OPAC from locations outside the library.

Patrons simply dial in, type the name of a publication, author or subject, and within seconds determine the availability and location of materials. While this technology continues to provide access to many digital libraries, use of a Web browser is supplanting modem and Telnet access as the new standard for access. The Boston Public Library receives over 200 electronic queries per hour from users around the world via dial in, Telnet and the Web.

Nearly 45 percent of the nation's public libraries reported an Internet connection of some type, according to a 1996 National Commission on Libraries and Information Science (NCLIS) survey. NCLIS anticipates that figure will grow to more than 60 percent by 1997. More public libraries are adding the Internet to their OPACs, and additionally providing gateways that patrons can access from home. Approximately 25 percent of public libraries provide modem access to the Internet from outside the library, according to the ALA survey.

SMALL LIBRARIES, BIG HOLDINGS

With the Internet, the smallest branch library becomes a huge centralized library, with no space problems. Smaller public libraries have small volume holdings, and with funds for new acquisitions tight, the Internet helps expand the size of a library without building new buildings.