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Reaching across Library Boundaries

Robert S. Martin

*The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the policies or positions of the Institute of Museum and Library Services or the federal government

When Dan Greenstein and Deanna Marcum asked me to participate in this important event, they told me that the goal of the conference is to stimulate new thinking among the conference participants about the possibilities for library services. And they suggested that the program and discussion here would focus on visions that emphasize deep resource sharing, collaboration, and effective and innovative uses of technology. I accepted the invitation with alacrity because these are issues that are of great interest to me personally and to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), which I represent. I am not certain what I can contribute to stimulating new thinking in these areas, but I do have one or two thoughts that I am happy to share with you this evening.

What are the new possibilities for library services that we need to be thinking about? It seems to me that the possibilities are enormous, limited only by our ability to imagine new permutations and combinations and to articulate the benefits that we can hope to produce for the society that we seek to serve. But I would like to focus my remarks on two broad themes that I think can provide the foundation for fostering imaginative innovation and for articulating our value: the opportunities and challenges in building digital libraries and the social role of libraries. In the process, I hope to discuss some obstacles that lie in the way of achieving new visions of library services.

Digital Libraries Bring Collections to Life

The first theme that I would like to address is the development of digital libraries. As Deanna Marcum pointed out in her address to the Elsevier Digital Libraries Symposium in Philadelphia in January, the time has come for us to “build massive, comprehensive digital collections that scholars, students, and other researchers can use even more easily than they use the book-based collections we have built up over the centuries.”

She went on to identify the three general characteristics of the digital library of the future. She said it will be

  • a comprehensive collection of resources important for scholarship, teaching, and learning;
  • readily accessible to all types of users, novices as well as the experienced; and
  • managed and maintained by professionals who see their role as stewards of the intellectual and cultural heritages of the world (Marcum 2003).

So where are we now in terms of achieving this vision? In the past decade we have made substantial progress in creating large-scale digital collections. It is extremely important, however, to distinguish digital collections from digital libraries. As Cliff Lynch pointed out at the IMLS WebWise conference at Johns Hopkins in 2002, a clear consensus still does not exist about what exactly constitutes a digital library. Digital collections are “raw content,” Lynch said, while “digital libraries [are] the systems that make digital collections come alive, make them usefully accessible, that make them useful for accomplishing work, and that connect them with communities.” The collections alone are nothing but a bunch of “stuff.” They have value only when surrounded by a matrix of content and interpretation that makes them useful. This is a significant issue: we need to be certain that we are developing digital libraries, not just digital collections.

When we do that, when we take care to surround collections with appropriate metadata supplying context and interpretation, then we truly develop synergy. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Lynch resurrected a remark attributed to Marvin Minsky many years ago, proposing a scenario in which someone in the future will say: “Can you imagine that there was a time when the books in a library didn’t talk to each other?” (Lynch 2002). Now we have an environment in which the books in a library can in a real sense talk to each other. And that has the effect of making the whole greater than the mere sum of individual books put together.

How do books talk to each other? The simplest example is the one we have all encountered on, when you order a book and the site tells you, “If you are interested in that book, then you might also be interested in these titles.” Our bibliographic systems make those connections implicitly now, but you have to know how to ask for them. We have the capability to create these links proactively now.

When books talk to each other, though, they can also talk to outside systems and programs and even people. And if individual books can talk to each other, then certainly libraries can talk to each other. I am not sure we can yet quite fathom all the implications of that phenomenon.

Digital Technology Changes Our Thinking on Copyright

One of the greatest impediments to realizing the potential of universal access to digital collections, it seems to me, is our current system of protecting intellectual property rights. The system works reasonably well-albeit not perfectly-in the traditional analog environment. Transferring the concepts of copyright to the digital arena, however, raises numerous thorny problems.

This complication really should not be a surprise. Our current system of copyright is, after all, a relatively new innovation in human history, arising from a very specific set of circumstances. In the manuscript era in the West, there was no notion of intellectual property rights. Texts were freely copied as the primary form of distribution, or “publishing.” Far from objecting to such copying, authors-if they were aware of it at all-welcomed it as an indication of the influence of their ideas or appreciation for their creativity.

Indeed, what we know as copyright arose only after the advent of typographic printing made it possible to produce manifold copies of a text quickly and cheaply, and when the market for many copies created an economic stake for the author (as well as the printer or publisher). The purpose of copyright, after all, as enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, is “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts.” This purpose is achieved “by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (art. 1, sec. 8). In other words, to encourage authors and inventors to continue to be creative and inventive, authors and inventors get to keep (for a limited time) whatever earnings accrue from their work. Upon this rather simple foundation an extremely complex system of law has evolved. But the purpose of that law remains “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts”: that is, to promote a social good.

Digital technology, though, raises complex and perturbing questions about these rights and about the very nature of copying and reproducing copyrighted material. In the digital arena, it is all too easy to make and distribute widely unauthorized copies of protected material. The content industry and rights holders, as a result, have tried many different approaches to plug the hole that digital technology has created in our structure of protections. The current statutory structure has been stretched, twisted, and distorted in an effort to extend it to cover products of a form never originally intended.

After all, in the words of the statute, “Copyright protection subsists . . . in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” (Copyright Act). This language is not ambiguous. It means that expression must be “fixed,” in the sense that text is fixed when it is printed; the creation cannot be left in a mutable form. And it also means that the creation must be embedded in a physical object; it cannot exist in an ethereal stream of bits. Extending the concept to cover evanescent digital media would appear to require extraordinary leaps of logic and law.

One proposed way to recognize copyright in digital media that has been widely advocated by some players in the content industries would be to mark all commercial digital content in some way-with a string of bits or with watermark technology. Developing mechanisms to find and read the marks, however, would require a broad range of technological innovations. Such marking technologies would need to be standardized and might require government regulation. Large segments of the information technology, consumer electronics, and communications industries would have to radically restructure their products to incorporate the technology.

Another proposal is to make many classes of hardware and software untamperable-that is, difficult to modify, or “closed.” But most recent technical innovation has been fostered by open platforms such as the PC and the Internet. The Internet as we now know it, the World Wide Web, Linux and other open-source software, and graphical browsers all have resulted from innovation made possible by open systems.

Indeed, such limitations would alter the very nature of the Internet as we know it. The Internet was developed to provide a mechanism for computers to share data on a distributed, decentralized network. Peer-to-peer file trading did not begin with Napster-it is a fundamental part of the Internet’s design. Digital music files are just another kind of data.

Moreover, copying data is inherent in computer operations of all kinds. Computers copy data constantly, from one part of RAM to another, from RAM to magnetic storage and back again, from RAM or storage to video displays, and so on. And digital copying is the very foundation of the Internet, in which data are typically divided into “packets,” which are then copied and recopied from computer to computer until reproductions of all the packets reach the destination computer and are reunited into a perfect copy of the transmitted information.

As the Napster episode indicates clearly, society has not yet established a norm regarding copying and sharing materials on the Web. History provides many examples of the failure of law to prohibit behaviors about which there is no established social consensus. (Prohibition is perhaps the most obvious example.) It is not clear that any of the newly developed legal edifices attempting to extend our copyright structure into the digital arena-such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and the Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA)-will indeed prove workable. And yet, copyright has many useful elements. It is difficult to argue that it should be jettisoned. But until a workable approach to addressing intellectual property rights is developed, we cannot realize the potential of digital libraries.

Rethinking Preservation in New Library Strategies

One of the biggest impediments to the long-term development of a comprehensive digital library is the issue of preservation of digital materials. Actually, this is a case where I think the term preservation itself obscures the issue. We in the library world are quite familiar with the overall issue of preservation of library collections in the traditional sense. Usually this approach focuses on the difficult but concrete concerns over preserving physical objects, such as paper documents, or reformatting them in a proven preservation medium like silver halide microfilm so that the information they contain can be maintained indefinitely. There is no way to use this approach in the digital arena. Instead, we might use alternative language, such as persistence or sustainability.

I think the best way to frame the concept, however, is to talk about transmission over time. Networked digital information technology is very good at transmitting data across space, but it is not well suited for transmitting data across time. The evanescence of the medium creates many difficulties.

First of all, there is the problem of the lack of fixity in digital media. One of the greatest advances occasioned by the advent of typography was that, for the first time, readers of a given document could be assured that they were all reading the same document (more or less). Prior to the advent of typography, readers of a manuscript document could have no confidence in the reliability of the text they were reading. It had probably been transcribed by hand many times and was many generations removed from the original text. Many kinds of errors and variations, both intentional and unintentional, may have been present. Moreover, because of the variations in formats of each exemplar of a text, there was no reliable means of citation. The advent of fixity facilitated a major advance in scholarly communication, the importance of which is difficult to exaggerate.

In a digital medium, that fixity is lost. One can have no assurance that a digital text conveys the original expression of an author. It may have been altered, intentionally or unintentionally. And with many document presentation schemes, we have even lost the reliability of citation formulas.

Beyond this problem with fixity lies the problem of fragility of the media. Random access memory (RAM) is completely evanescent and transitory. Most digital files are stored on magnetic media. These media are inherently unstable and must be refreshed on a regular schedule. The longevity of other media for digital storage (such as laser-encoded discs like CDs) remains uncertain, although we can be pretty confident that they are less stable than paper codices stored in an appropriate environment.

Another concern is that in order to record, store, and retrieve digital files of any kind, we must become dependent on specific hardware and software. The operating systems, application programs, and digital data encoding schemes have already gone through many generations of evolution in the short period since the advent of digital information technology. Most of these result in mutually unintelligible file structures. The simplest example is the rapid change in simple word processing application programs. WordStar was once the dominant commercial program for text processing. Nowadays, if you have a disk with a WordStar file on it, even if the disk itself has not deteriorated, and even if you have hardware that will read the disk, it is now impossible to retrieve a WordStar text file without a sophisticated translation program.Indeed, it is even difficult to retrieve and edit a file that was written in an earlier version of Microsoft Word. Imagine how this problem cascades over time with the constant development of new application software.

In spite of a lot of work addressing these issues at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) and the Library of Congress (LC) over the past two decades, little real progress has been made. A new white paper by Brian Lavoie at the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) provides an interesting approach to the economic issues related to digital preservation and may pave the way for finally developing a decentralized approach to addressing this problem.

Funding the Digital Library Takes Diverse Resources

As Deanna Marcum has pointed out, creating digital libraries is very expensive. The library community’s initial response to suggestions that we might create a comprehensive digital repository was that, inter alia, this development would be impossible because it is too expensive. Where will the money come from?

There are now a number of different federal sources of funding for creating digital content. IMLS, as the only federal agency specifically authorized by statute to support digitization of cultural content, has provided significant funding for digital projects in recent years. The National Science Foundation, through its Digital Library Program, has provided substantially more funding. The National Endowment for the Humanities has recently begun providing support for digital projects under its Preservation and Access program. The LC has done much, not only in digitizing its own collections but also in supporting digitization effort more generally.

A number of foundations and corporations have also provided resources to support the effort of developing digital materials and understanding their use. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in particular has been very active in this area.

Heretofore, the costs of creating and managing digital collections, coupled with the enormous scope of the project, have inhibited the development of large-scale digital collections. Now, however, we are beginning to see that as the technology continues to develop, costs of digitizing and storage are coming down. The goal may indeed be within our grasp.

The most interesting recent development is the growing recognition among elected officials that the benefits of creating comprehensive digital collections may be worth the cost. One approach that starts with an interesting premise is the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust (DOIT). Originally suggested by Lawrence Grossman and Newton Minow, founders of the Digital Promise Project, DOIT would set aside anticipated revenues from resale of the broadcast spectrum as an endowment for creating digital resources to support education. The idea is sort of a twenty-first century Morrell Act, which supported the development of the land-grant colleges in the nineteenth century.

According to the official literature distributed by Digital Promise, “DOIT’s charge will be to unlock the potential of the Internet and other new information technologies for education in the broadest sense; to stimulate public and private sector research into the development and use of new learning techniques; and to encourage public and private sector partnerships and alliances in education, science, the humanities, the arts, civic affairs and government.”

Foremost in the list of activities to be undertaken by DOIT is “Digitiz[ing] America’s collected memory stored in our nation’s universities, libraries, and museums to make these materials available for use at home, school, and work.” Thanks to Congressman Ralph Regula (R-OH), who led the effort, the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bill directs $750,000 to the Digital Opportunity Investment Trust. These funds will be allocated through the Federation of American Scientists and are to be used to create a proposed structure for DOIT and to develop a research and development roadmap to outline the steps necessary to fulfill the Digital Promise.

There are alternatives to massive, centralized federal funding that are worthy of consideration. Many of us, especially those in academic libraries, are already aware of a phenomenon that I call “the other digital divide”: for many of our users, especially students, but increasingly faculty, if it is not digital, then it may as well not exist. Students waiting until the last minute to write a term paper (emphatically not a new behavior) will simply not use library resources that are not already digital. And faculty teaching in the online environment will likewise rarely incorporate into their lesson plans anything that cannot be loaded up on, or linked to, their WebCT or Blackboard courses. We have already come to terms with the fact that Web-based instruction, originally developed for distance-learning initiatives, is now commonly used to support teaching and learning in traditional course environments, a phenomenon that only strengthens this trend.

This phenomenon has the potential to lead us in a different direction as we seek funding models for developing digital collections. A decentralized, demand-driven model might be the best approach. Traditionally we have provided users of our unique archival collections photocopies of such materials to support their research needs and have had no reluctance to charging cost-recovery fees for the privilege. We are now altering that strategy, using scanning technology that simultaneously provides a hard copy for the patron and a digital file for the library. If carefully structured and managed, an approach of scanning-on-demand, with cost recovery built in, can result in the development of significant digital resources at low public cost.

Institutional repositories are another very important and promising element in creating a comprehensive digital library. The California Digital Library provides one excellent example of this approach. The synthesis of Cliff Lynch’s recent observations on digital repositories in the Association of Research Libraries’ (ARL) February 2003 ARL Report provides the best summary to date of the issues surrounding institutional repositories. I commend it to your attention and incorporate it by reference rather than dwell further on that important topic. I might add that institutional repositories are not restricted to academic and research libraries. They are also relevant to public libraries, which can serve as gateways to local governmental information and community resources. They can also serve as repositories for the work of independent scholars, free-agent teachers, and independent self-directed learners.

New Evaluative Systems Show the Digital Library’s Value

In all sectors of public life we are experiencing an increasing emphasis on assessment and accountability. This is in my view quite understandable, and it is appropriate. And it is not really new. As John Cotton Dana said in 1920:

All public institutions . . . should give returns for their cost; and those returns should be in good degree positive, definite, visible, measurable. The goodness of a [library] is not in direct ratio to the cost of its building and the upkeep thereof, or to the rarity, auction value, or money cost of its collections. A [library] is good only insofar as it is of use . . . . Common sense demands that a publicly supported institution do something for its supporters and that some part at least of what it does be capable of clear description and downright valuation. (Dana 1999)

IMLS has provided training to all grantees in outcome-based evaluation and requires grantees to develop outcome-based measures for the success of their projects. We simply have to do a better job of demonstrating the value that we provide to the communities we serve. This doesn’t mean that we have to quantify everything-good stories are important, too.

Evaluating digital resources is difficult. One of the traditional criteria for evaluating libraries, especially in the research university environment, is size of collection. This is, after all, a common-sense approach to determining how well a library can meet the needs of a large and complex body of users-by anticipating their needs.

ARL has been collecting and using a wide range of statistics to measure library services. In the past, those measures relied heavily on counting inputs. The comprehensive ARL index is derived from a multiple regression algorithm that converges on size of collections and expenditures.

In recent years, however, recognizing that the utility of this approach has limitations, ARL began its New Measures Initiative. The initiative was undertaken in response to the increasing demand for libraries to demonstrate outcomes and impacts in areas important to the institution, coupled with the increasing pressure to maximize use of resources.

This initiative includes an approach toward defining and measuring library service quality across institutions and creating useful quality assessment tools for libraries. It also explicitly attempts to provide realistic ways to measure the quality of access versus ownership and to explore the feasibility of defining and collecting data on the use and value of digital resources. Efforts such as these are essential if we are to fully realize the potential of digital libraries and adequately articulate the value that they bring to the communities we serve.

Responsibility for Learning Rests with the Community

I would like now to turn to my second theme, which is the fundamental social role of libraries in the twenty-first century. At IMLS, our focus is on the educational mission of museums and libraries. This focus drove the creation of the institute in its present form six years ago-the simple recognition on the part of some members of Congress that museums and libraries share a fundamental educational mission: supporting learning. The mission of IMLS is to build the institutional capacity of museums and libraries to provide resources and services that support learners of all ages. In short, we are dedicated to creating and sustaining a nation of learners.

Libraries of all types provide a broad range of resources and services for the communities they serve. They preserve our rich and diverse culture and history and transmit it from one generation to the next. They provide social settings for numerous community activities. They support economic development. They provide extraordinary opportunities for recreation and enjoyment. And they serve as a primary social agency for education, providing resources and services that both support and complement agencies of formal education.

We often hear it said that libraries (and librarians) select, organize, retrieve, and transmit information or knowledge. That is true. But those are the activities, not the mission, of the library. Certainly we perform those activities, but the important question is: To what purpose? We do not do those things by and for themselves. We do them in order to address an important and continuing need of the society we seek to serve. In short, we do them to support learning.

Perhaps it would be better to say that libraries-all libraries-are in the business of creating and sustaining learners of all ages. We live in an information society, but today, in the twenty-first century, we must do more than merely live among information. We must create a learning society.

We enter this twenty-first century in the midst of a bewildering mix of opportunity, uncertainty, challenge, and change, all moving at unprecedented speed. Fueled by dazzling new technologies, increasing social diversity and divide, and radical shifts in industry and labor markets, accelerating change has become a way of life. As Daniel Pink has recently observed, we live in “a world of accelerated cycle times, shrinking company half-lives, and the rapid obsolescence of knowledge and skills. In a free agent economy, our education system must allow people to learn throughout their lives” (Pink 2001).

Pink goes on to cite the development of the World Wide Web as a prime example of the power of individual learning and the limitations of formal education:

For example, how did anybody learn the Web? In 1993, it barely existed. By 1995, it was the foundation of dozens of new industries and an explosion of wealth. There weren’t any college classes in Web programming, HTML coding, or Web page design in those early years. Yet somehow hundreds of thousands of people managed to learn. How? They taught themselves-working with colleagues, trying new things, and making mistakes. That was the secret to the Web’s success. The Web flourished almost entirely through the ethic and practice of self-teaching. This is not a radical concept. Until the first part of this century, most Americans learned on their own-by reading. Literacy and access to books were an individual’s ticket to knowledge. Even today, according to my own online survey of 1,143 independent workers, “reading” was the most prevalent way free agents said they stay up-to-date in their field. (Pink 2001)

In recent years we have seen a marked decrease in traditional schooling, the rise of home schooling, and an increase in individualized, self-directed, free-choice learners. There is a growing trend toward decentralizing education, a trend that has been termed by some “schooling” education. These trends present an enormous opportunity for libraries and museums, which have always excelled at providing resources and services that nurture and support informal learning. In this environment, the development of comprehensive digital collections, in both museums and libraries, has the potential to revolutionize the way we think about teaching and learning.

For the past several years, we at IMLS have been engaged in an initiative that we refer to under the heading of “The 21st Century Learner.” Our purpose is to address the need for bold new models of integrated action among formal and informal educational institutions in meeting the demands and interests of learners in the twenty-first century. We are particularly interested in the potential for museums and libraries to inspire such action in their communities.

At the heart of this discussion is a central thesis: The responsibility for learning is not the exclusive preserve of formal educational institutions-schools, colleges, and universities. It is instead a community-wide responsibility. Learning throughout the lifetime should be a continuum, with formal and nonformal learning opportunities complementing one another. Learning does not start at the schoolroom door; neither does it stop at that portal either. It is ubiquitous.

As this 21st Century Learner initiative has developed within the IMLS, based on a central vision, it has been built on a ladder of premises that directly affect our work with museums and libraries. These six premises are as follows:

  • In a knowledge-based economy, learning across the life span is becoming increasingly essential.
  • As lifelong learning becomes more central to our society, museums and libraries have new opportunities to serve as vital learning resources. Their unique assets already establish them as trusted community resources.
  • The central challenge is awareness: to establish greater public awareness of and access to these resources, and awareness of how to use these resources most effectively to foster critical thinking and enhance information literacy skills.
  • To meet this challenge, museums and libraries may be most effective by becoming part of an infrastructure or network of learning resources-schools and universities, public radio and television, community-based educational activities-all sharing a common educational mission.
  • Technology today provides us with new tools for supporting such collaborations
  • Finally, well-defined learning collaborations, designed to meet the changing needs of the twenty-first century learner, ultimately will enrich and strengthen the quality and fabric of community life.
Collaboration Is Essential to Twenty-first Century Success

At IMLS we believe that collaboration is emerging as the strategy of the twenty-first century. Collaboration aligns with how we think about our communities as “holistic” environments, as social ecosystems in which we are part of an integrated whole. The kind of collaboration I have in mind in the strategy for the twenty-first century is not a joined-at-the-hip symbiosis. It is instead a mature and reflective recognition of intersecting nodes of interest, activity, and mission. It is the potential for creating synergy out of cooperation, building a structure in which the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.

Librarians have a consistent history of collaboration. Sharing resources is fundamental to the practice of the profession. Indeed, the concept of sharing underlies the very foundation of the modern library as a social agency. Libraries were established in order to pool scarce resources for the common good. The society libraries of the Colonial period arose from the simple fact that books were too scarce-and too expensive-for any one individual to be able to acquire access to all he or she needed, so readers brought their individual collections together to share them in common. This ethic of sharing has remained strong in the practice of American librarianship ever since.

Collaboration, however, is not easy. It requires that we-as individuals and as institutions-behave in ways that are not “normal,” that feel unnatural. My favorite definition of collaboration is that it is “an unnatural act, practiced by nonconsenting adults.” My dictionary, in fact, offers the following as one definition: “cooperating treasonably, as with an enemy occupying one’s country.” This notion may be at the heart of some of the difficulties that we encounter in attempting to collaborate. A better definition for our purposes is “working together in a joint effort.”

Differences among institutions, however, can be profound. The assets and personnel, academic preparation of professionals, even the very vocabulary we use to describe operations can all be dramatically different. The characteristics and proximity to the communities served can vary widely. Values and assumptions of mission and service can also be different.

In short, the cultures of organizations can differ dramatically. These differences are real, they are challenging, and they do not go away. It is imperative that these differences be recognized forthrightly. Over time, they can evolve into sources of synergy rather than contention.

At IMLS we are, naturally, interested in fostering collaboration between and among museums and libraries. It is inherent in our structure and mandated by our governing statute. But we also think it is imperative to reach out beyond the museum and library to find nodes of intersecting interest and mission among other players in the community.

One of the potential partners in which we have the most interest at present is public broadcasting. Robert Coonrod, the president of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), gave the keynote address at our recent WebWise conference in Washington. He provided a broad overview of the changes that broadcasters are going through, due in large part to the impact of digital technology. Those changes lead to the inescapable recognition of a pending convergence. Public broadcasters are becoming more and more like libraries and museums-just as libraries and museums are becoming more and more like broadcasters.

Coonrod encouraged us to begin to explore what he called “community-based public service media collaboratives.” We already have ready examples of such collaborative projects in the landscape, many of them funded by IMLS. We are now actively exploring collaborative projects at the meta level between IMLS and CPB.

To give you an idea of how essential we think this kind of approach is to success, you should know that we have recently created a new position on our staff, director for strategic partnerships. The charge to that officer is to identify opportunities for useful collaborations with other federal agencies, with nongovernmental organizations, with other funders such as foundations and corporations, and with the relevant service organizations. We have agreed to define the long-term success of this approach when these agencies start to come to us for help in involving museums and libraries in their programs because they recognize what museums and libraries can do to help them achieve their goals. That has already begun to happen.

Community in the Brick-and-Mortar Library

Lest all this discussion of digital libraries leave you with the impression that I think libraries will cease to have a physical presence in the future, I want to address the important role of libraries as a place in the community.

The biggest challenge to libraries in the twenty-first century, it seems to me, is to balance traditional roles and services with the new roles and services afforded by digital information technology. It is absolutely essential to recognize that the new technology has not replaced the old. It has instead opened a new range of opportunities for service, created new populations of users, and made possible new modalities for carrying out the unchanged mission of libraries to support learners of all kinds. The critical point to remember is that while libraries are increasingly digital, they also remain essential physical places in the community.

An excellent example of the challenge of this duality came to the fore in an incident in Tacoma, Washington, last fall. In response to a critical budget shortfall, the Tacoma City Council was preparing to cut the library budget and close several library branches. Councilman Kevin Phelps asserted that “we have to embrace significant change in how we look at libraries . . . . The current libraries, as we see them today, are somewhat of a dinosaur.” To Phelps, the growth of the Internet and the home computer meant that libraries did not need to be physical places. “The current model we have is very intensive on bricks and mortar,” Phelps said, commenting on the 10 neighborhood branch libraries in the system. Instead, he wanted to foster a single central library, with services distributed to the public digitally. Phelps’s colleagues on the council were reported to have congratulated him for “thinking outside the box” (Callaghan 2002).

Peter Callaghan, a Tacoma News Tribune columnist, was not persuaded. “Let’s think inside the box for a moment,” Callaghan wrote. “Because it is inside those brick-and-mortar boxes where community lives. Tacoma’s 10 libraries are the living rooms of 10 neighborhoods. They are places where latchkey kids can feel safe in the afternoons, where community groups have meetings, where seniors go to read papers and stay current, where people without Internet access at home go online, where parents give their children the gift of reading” (Callaghan 2002).

Mr. Callaghan has it exactly right, it seems to me. We must embrace and pursue the potential of universal access through comprehensive digital collections. But we must not lose sight of the indispensable role of the library as a place, a place that builds social capital and supports a civil society; a place that is a vital and vibrant center of community life-whether your community is an isolated rural village, an impoverished city center, an affluent suburb, or a research university.

Libraries in the twenty-first century have a unique and critically important role to play in providing resources and services that create and sustain a nation of learners. If we work to build comprehensive digital collections that are appropriately organized and presented for ease of access, if we focus our efforts on developing resources that support learning of all kinds, and if we demonstrate the value that we create and provide for the communities we serve, then we will succeed in fulfilling that promise.


Callaghan, Peter. 2002. Councilman’s plan to cut city libraries is far from courageous. The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash., October 1. Available at

Copyright Act. U.S. Code. Vol 17, sec. 101.

Dana, John Cotton. 1999. The New Museum: Selected Writings by John Cotton Dana, edited by William A. Penniston, Introduction by Stephen A. Weil. Newark, N.J.: The Newark Museum Assn.; Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums.

Lavoie, Brian. 2003. Incentives to Preserve Digital Materials: Roles, Scenarios, and Economic Decision-Making. White Paper. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Online Computer Library, Inc. Available at

Lynch, Clifford A. 2003. Institutional Repositories: Essential Infrastructure for Scholarship in the Digital Age. ARL Report. Issue 226 (February).

Lynch, Clifford. 2002. “Digital Collections, Digital Libraries and Digitization of Cultural Heritage Information.” Web-Wise 2002: A Conference on Libraries and Museums in the Digital World, March 20-22, 2002. Available at

Marcum, Deanna. 2003. Requirements for the Future Digital Library. An address to the Elsevier Digital Libraries Symposium, Philadelphia, Pa., January 25, 2003. Available at

Pink, Daniel H. 2001. School’s Out: Get Ready for the New Age of Individualized Education. Reason (October). Available at


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