21st: Are we ready for the library of the future?

Librarians have promised to put the world of information at the public's fingertips. Now they're stuck fixing bugs and teaching people how to use a mouse.

Published December 2, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Librarians today will tell you their job is not so much to be shepherds of books but to give people access to information in all forms. Since librarians, like so many people, believe that the entire universe of commerce, communication and information is moving to digital form, they are on a crusade to give people access to the Internet -- to prevent them from becoming second-class citizens in an all-digital world.

Something funny happened on the road to the digital library of the future, though. Far from becoming keepers of the keys to the Grand Database of Universal Knowledge, today's librarians are increasingly finding themselves in an unexpected, overloaded role: They have become the general public's last-resort providers of tech support.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. Today's libraries offer a variety of media and sociocultural events -- they are "blended libraries," to use a term coined by Kathleen Imhoff, assistant director of the Broward County Library of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. At the newly remodeled San Francisco Public Library, the computers are prominently displayed in the center of the library building while the books are all but hidden on the periphery. Imhoff's own library has word processing and other types of software for patrons to use, Internet access, audio CDs, videotapes, concerts, lectures, books and periodicals in three forms (print, microfiche and digital).

Many libraries have found that this kind of "blending" is hugely popular in their communities, and librarians explain the changes in their institutions' roles by pointing to the public demand for these new services. But other trends are at work, too.

For some time, libraries have been automating their back-end, behind-the-desk functions for reasons of cost and convenience, just like any other business. Now, the computers have moved out from behind librarians' desks and onto the floor where the patrons are. This means that, suddenly, library-goers will have to know how to use those computers.

This sounds reasonable enough until you take a close look. Unfortunately, the same technology that cuts costs and relieves librarians of work behind the scenes increases it for the public -- and for the librarians at the front desk who have to help the public figure out how to use the technology. The unhappy result: People are simply not finding the information they seek.

If you are just coming to the library to read a book for pleasure and you know what a card catalog is and you have some basic computer skills, then you are going to be OK. But if you are trying to find some specific information -- say, whether software in the classroom helps kids learn better or the causes of ovarian cancer or the basic procedure for doing a cost-benefit analysis of computer systems (three topics I have actually tried to look up in the San Francisco library) -- then you're in trouble.

To begin with, library visitors must now be able to type, to use a mouse and a menu and to understand the various types of computer interfaces (terminal text, windows and browsers). It's also nice if you know 17 different ways to quit a program, which electronic databases you should look in for what kinds of information, the syntax necessary to define your search and the Library of Congress' controlled vocabulary. After I had been to the new San Francisco library three times, I started keeping a folder of instructions on how to do a keyword search (fi a= author, for example), since I would forget between visits.

Probably half the population has never used a computer, fewer know how to type and almost nobody knows anything about electronic databases or searching syntax. As a result, the public library is now engaged in a massive attempt to teach computer literacy to the entire country. Some librarians compare it to the adult literacy programs the library also sponsors, but this is on a far larger scale -- and less closely tied to the library's traditional mission.

The response at each library system has been different. Some libraries actually give courses in word processing, spreadsheets and so on. But even at libraries where the staff has resisted becoming computer trainers, they are still forced to devote significant resources to the problem.

Such has been the case in San Francisco, where people with disabilities can sign up to use the voice-recognition program Dragon Dictate -- but only if they can prove they already know how to use the software. The librarians have neither the time nor the expertise (nor the time to develop the expertise) to teach it to them. At the reference desks, librarians try not to spend a lot of time teaching people the basics of how to use the computer, but sometimes it's unavoidable. "We try to get them started," says business librarian John Kenney. "We let them do as much as they can on their own and they come get us. It's certainly a big problem."

The San Francisco library offers classes on its own electronic catalog, commercial periodical indexes and the Internet twice a week as well as occasional lectures about the Internet. Although it seems odd to me that people now need to take a two-hour class before they can use the library, the classes are always full. But despite the excellent teachers, two hours is simply not enough to meet the needs of the students, many of whom have never used a computer before in their lives and many of whom simply can't type. When I took the class one Tuesday, the man sitting next to me said he has used the library's computer catalog many times, but he keeps making typos without knowing it. This unexpectedly throws him into the wrong screens and he doesn't know how to get back. On the floor, he repeatedly has to ask a librarian for help.

"Providing technology does not mean people can use the technology," says Marc Webb, a San Francisco librarian and one of the teachers. "Half the constituency is still trying to read English." The library has also had to contend with the practical difficulties of making its catalog accessible via the Internet, a new service many libraries are starting to offer.

"It's absolutely overwhelming," Webb says. "Everyone is getting to us with multiple transports, they're all using different software, they have Winsock or Telnet set up differently, and suddenly the library is forced to become a hardware and software help desk. When you're trying to tell someone [over the telephone] how to set up Winsock through AOL when this is the first time they've ever used a computer, it's very tricky."

Even for people who know how to use a computer, the technology causes problems. In the past, when people needed to find something other than a book, they tended to ask a reference librarian first. Now that all the indexes -- and many of the articles as well -- are on the computer, more patrons are simply doing searches themselves, with no idea that they might be missing information that's there because they're in the wrong index or using the wrong search word.

The indexes have cryptic names like ERIC and EBSCO that give no clue as to what subject they cover. Print indexes, on the other hand, are of course located in the subject area they index, which makes them easy to find, and they also contain voluminous introductory pages listing every periodical they index, with explanations of how they are organized and instructions on their use. The electronic indexes either don't offer this at all or make the information nearly impossible to find. (In San Francisco, the staff is aware of this problem and hopes to correct it soon with a paper guide, electronic documentation or a new graphic interface for the whole system.)

Libraries also seem content to buy indexes based on broad subject category without paying any attention to whether they actually list a specific source their patrons might want to use. An article in the December 1994 issue of the Library Journal complained that the electronic science index in use at one university library referenced only three basic undergraduate-level indexes, which ironically also were the easiest ones to use in print, rather than more complex indexes such as Chemical Abstracts.

"Surely no librarian would hand a patron a volume of the Reader's Guide when a science index was needed, yet we are doing the same thing passively -- and with the same outcome," wrote Kevin Cook, a former reference librarian. "Through a program of technological advancement as carefully reasoned as a seaside lemming vacation, many patrons who can't tell a Boolean operator from apple butter are now free to spool off hundreds of citations without librarian assistance -- until the printer runs out of paper."

The same thing seems to be happening in public libraries, even ones that don't have any interest in Chemical Abstracts. Florida's Imhoff tells me that the archiving policies at her library have changed dramatically since they put in full-text periodical indexes. Now they save paper copies in the main libraries for three to five years instead of five to 10. For archiving, they rely on EBSCO, which offers full text for some of the 3,000 periodicals it indexes. What it doesn't include is either too obscure or scholarly for her library to need, she says.

What's more, none of these electronic databases preserves the entire source, in its original format and in the context of other articles and advertisements, as microfiche does. Each article exists as a single record in plain text with loads of typos and no accompanying graphics.

Those patrons who do ask for librarian assistance, at least at the San Francisco library, either get a librarian who hasn't been trained on the system ("I've never used the ERIC database before," one told me) or a librarian who stands behind the reference desk and gives you a quick description of what database to look under and what string to try. If you can't find the right screen or the string doesn't seem to be working, you have to go back and wait in line again. At the old library, the librarian would walk you over to the print index or one of the few computer databases and start finding the information for you. Only after it became apparent that you were on the right track would the librarian leave you to it.

But the librarians simply don't have time anymore. I don't mean to pick on the San Francisco library staff, who are doing their best under difficult circumstances. It's just that they don't yet have enough reference librarians to cope with the deluge of new patrons and questions that new libraries create.

Critics of the "blended library" and of libraries' shift from books
to computers are often writers who lament that public libraries are less
and less useful for serious research. Many librarians respond that the
public library is not and cannot be a research institution -- it's paid for out
of tax money and it must be responsive to the community it is in and
serve its needs. Today's public, it seems, wants computers more than it wants

I suspect that's because we are living in an era when the potential
of technology is almost always exaggerated and its practical limitations
ignored. In the library, computers make finding things more difficult --
unless we are prepared to dramatically increase funding for training,
system maintenance and more reference librarians. As it stands,
librarians are now the slaves of an unfunded mandate.

The hysterical urgency of the pressure libraries feel to computerize is based on a big lie: the widespread notion that the computer itself is some kind of important information source analogous to the book, but somehow more useful and wonderful. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Computers are not simply books in electronic clothes. Multimedia and
games are fun, but do not offer the same kind of information as books
and magazines. The same can be said of databases, which are even further
removed from narrative form. And the Internet, although extremely useful
in many ways, is currently no replacement for a print library.

The Internet has 30 million to 40 million Web pages; the library contains 25 million books with many pages each, says Karen Coyne, a specialist in library automation at U.C.-Berkeley and Western regional director for Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility. The Web also has no standard information retrieval tools and is completely disorganized, she continues. The library, on the other hand, has an extremely complex indexing system using controlled vocabulary and comprehensive cross-referencing.

"Unfortunately, documents do not define themselves," she says. Doing a keyword search in an Internet search engine throws up too many false hits to be useful, leaves out stuff you're really looking for, and cannot yet select material for different user levels, such as children.

"It's cruel to make people have to weed through every bit of info in the world to find what they need," she says. She also notes that many information sources on the Internet are administered by part-time volunteers. Sites come and go without notice and quickly go out of date. So far, there is no guarantee that sites will be archived and available to future generations. ("I know in a couple of years some graduate student is going to come in here asking for Salon," Kenney tells me.)

Coyne writes on her Web site: "As a telecommunications system, the Internet is both modern and mature; as an information system the Internet is an amateur operation."

One day, the information on the Net could rival the richness of
print. One day, when screen resolution improves, we will even be able to read it without squinting. But until then, what will matter in a library, what has always mattered in a library, is the quality of the collection and, of course, the public's ability to access it and use it. Too bad that, today, such ideals don't brand a library as "visionary."

By Cate T. Corcoran

Cate T. Corcoran is a San Francisco freelancer who writes about business, technology, culture and media.

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