Public libraries also are extending their reach beyond their own geographic boundaries by digitizing information and making it accessible via the Internet to a national and even global population. This is one of the greatest benefits of digital libraries. Library patrons no longer are limited to material available in their community libraries.

Some public libraries are wasting no time getting involved in this digitization revolution. Over 200 public libraries have home pages on the Web, where many package selections of the most useful and authoritative information sources, both from their own collections and around the globe.


A good example of the offerings of a public library Web site is St. Joseph's County Public Library (SJCPL) in South Bend, Ind., . St. Joe's was the first public library in the United States and the second in the world to put up a Web server.

The Web site provides access to the SJCPL online catalog and the holdings of four area public libraries, as well as information on over 1,200 community organizations and services. There is an index to the Metro section of the local paper, an events calendar, Indiana state Legislature information, a subject guide to newspapers, magazines, and links to Web sites of interest which include hundreds of public libraries. Several leased databases are available for the use of registered patrons and users can also search the library's Information File Database for answers to reference questions collected by the library staff.


Teaneck Public Library in Teaneck, N.J., offers a Web site with a link to an e-mail form to submit reference questions . It is not necessary to be a patron of Teaneck's library to get a response from the reference librarian. Many of their questions have been from people outside the immediate area.

"This service results in some interesting questions," said Michael McCue, the library's director. "All libraries hear from people time to time from far away with genealogy questions, but this service has opened it up to a wider range of queries." The Web site is about one-and-a-half years old and the response from the community has been favorable. Citizens like the idea of their community library on the Web; it's a form of municipal pride, according to McCue.


Public libraries are also beginning to develop their own online digital collections, made available on the Internet. Many dedicate themselves to a particular subject matter. The Library of Congress has embarked upon a massive digitization program of American history. Called the National Digital Library program, the effort was launched in October 1994 to digitize and make electronically available over 5 million items from its collections by the year 2000.

The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York City Public Library system, is in the midst of a project to digitize a collection of writings by 19th century African-American women. Additionally, the center has already digitized 400 titles in the public domain -- works by people of African descent -- which they plan to mount on their Web site.

But are these efforts the beginning of a system to get everything online, or isolated efforts to preserve select holdings? As more and more information travels over electronic networks instead of paper format, some library-automation advocates foresee a future in which networked information systems deliver information digitally, eventually replacing the local library. They believe there will soon come a time when a person can summon virtually any information through a computer that could be located almost anywhere.

It is clear, however, that today's digital collections do not constitute this universal access to information that digital visionaries propose. There are significant obstacles, including the cost of scanning and digitizing vast numbers of publications in