The cost of converting printed material to electronic format is astronomical. To create a full-text digital library from a collection of 150,000 books would cost $327.6 million or $2,185 per book, according to an ALA Library Technology Report published in 1995.
So far, digital library projects seldom address the cost issue. Most are funded by external sources, such as educational foundations or corporate sponsors, rather than by library operating budgets, so they are at least partially protected from justifying the full cost of digitizing information in print.
Library leaders doubt that all printed material will ever be converted to digital form, and as Krueger explained, "For many things there just will never be the overwhelming economic demand for it."
In Future Libraries, Crawford and Gorman argue that computers in libraries will always have limits. "The facts are that books work and they work better than any alternative for sustained reading. Today and for the foreseeable future, no electronic medium can begin to compare with ink on paper for readability, even if we discount the aesthetic pleasure of the book or the magazine itself as a factor. Only the most fervid futurists and some fellow-traveling librarians still speak of electronic books as imminent and inevitable replacements for printed books."
Library leaders foresee the library of the future providing a complementary combination of both digital and book collections. "All print media will never be in digital form, but the function of libraries will be to provide the integration of this print media into the multimedia communications that are now so rapidly proliferating around our country and the world," said Young. The complexity of technology change will call for library professionals who are just as comfortable navigating a cyberspace of electronic information resources as working with traditional resources. Libraries in the future must maintain a balance between the extremes of the digital library and the low-tech library of the past.
Michael Fiels' words of caution put it best: "Be ready to start running two libraries."
Pat Newcombe is the reference librarian at Western New England College School of Law. E-mail:
PROBLEM/SITUATION: Libraries and their patrons want access to electronic forms of information.
SOLUTION: Technologies, from CD-ROM to the Internet, make it possible to expand the holdings of libraries -- large and small.
JURISDICTION: New York City; Teaneck, N.J.; South Bend, Ind.