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Libraries heading in a new direction

Richmond Times-Dispatch, (December 1, 1996).

When new Library
of Va. opens soon,
it will be 'wired'

If you want to see the face of change, visit your library.

A technological revolution is sweeping American libraries, borne on silicon chips and woven into the electronic fabric of the Internet.

Libraries aren't just opening the door to the Information Age, they're prying it off.

When it opens in early January, the new Library of Virginia in Richmond will be a symbolic edifice of the new direction libraries are taking.

In a word, it will be "wired."

It will be like a cyber cafeteria where you can plug in your laptop or use one of the library's own computers to surf the menu for whatever suits your taste that day.

The features will include full Internet access, online charge catalogs and, in time, electronic entre to more than 60 collections.

Of course, many patrons - from California to Australia - have already been using some of those services and collections on their home or office computers. That's because the library has its own Home Page on the World Wide Web:

"Three years ago, I didn't think that we're doing was possible," said Dr. Sandra Treadway, deputy director of the state library.

She said that at libraries, the future is arriving with a rush.

"You look on the immediate horizon ... but you must stay tuned to whatever's coming. You never know what could be coming."

What's coming now, Treadway said, is electronic publishing.

Words, drawings and photographs will (and are) disseminated not on the printed page, as they have been since the Gutenberg press, but through electronic signals.

So far, it's been just a trickle in a vast sea of information. But a flood tide may be looming.

"Electronic publishing may vastly change the way we operate," Treadway explained. "In a few years, a lot of ,journals and reference books may never appear in print."

Currently, scanning documents for electronic publishing is labor intensive and, as a result, expensive. But if new technology can slash the cost, electronic publishing could boom, Treadway said.

The Library of Virginia has digitized some of its most heavily used 'material that heeded preservation, such as its fragile family Bible records, and deteriorating paper catalog cards for archival and library collections.

But Elizabeth Roderick, who's leading the library's technology makeover as coordinator of electronic projects, says don't expect to see a wave of digitized books anytime soon, nor would she want to.

"Less than 5 percent, and probably less than 3 percent of the world's information, is in an electronic format. The sheer magnitude of transferring [that information] to electronic form would be staggering," she said.

"And even if we could, you'll never catch me lying in bed at 10 o'clock with a laptop propped on my chest. I want a book."

Treadway emphasized that although the new Library of Virginia will be up to its carrels in computer technology, books will continue to be its heart and soul.

And when patrons enter the library, "The first thing they see will not be technology," she said.

"They will walk into a building with an atrium to the ceiling and their eyes will be instantly drawn to the second floor ... where the reading rooms will be filled with books. We're consciously making a statement that the book is . very, very important and they're the foundation of a library."

But there's no doubt that digitization of books and periodicals is rapidly increasing, especially in academic libraries.

One example is the Virtual Library of Virginia a consortium of the 39 state-assisted colleges and universities, with the state's 27 private institutions participating where possible.

Besides linking the card catalogs, the institutions share the cost of computer databases of full-text poems, literature, references, and academic and scientific publications.

The University of Virginia has its Electronic Text Center and provides online texts such as the Oxford English Dictionary, the complete works of English poetry, selected Library of America titles, the entire corps of Old English writings. *Recently, U.Va. announced a project to provide computerized versions of 582 rare first editions of American fiction published from 1775 to 1850.

In the Richmond area, library systems are in various stages of ushering in technological reforms. Chesterfield and Henrico, for example, are poising for huge leaps.

By next fall, Henrico expects to have 300 to 350 additional computers in its libraries, with some providing direct access to the Internet, along with a variety of databases.

And Chesterfield, with overwhelming passage of a bond issue for libraries, will be instituting a wide range of technological changes from Internet access to online data bases for thousands of publications.

Soon, patrons from every branch will be able to search online card catalogs, instantly letting them know whether a book is on the shelves anywhere in the system.

"In some ways, we'll be jumping from the 19th century to the 21st century," said Alanna Graboyes, Chesterfield's technology supervisor.

"A library has confined space and confined walls. With an online system, we'll be able to reach out beyond our walls to find information. ... It's opening a door to the world."

Bob Sweet, technology coordinator for Henrico's libraries, said local governments have realized that technologically advanced library systems are not only important to residents, but are critical for attracting industry and development.

Richmond residents with a computer and a modem also can dial in from home to search the libraries' catalogs, and recently the city added Internet access at all its branches through a grant from MCI.

On Mondays and Wednesdays from 3 to 6 p.m., city students can report to local libraries for homework help, with teachers and computers there to assist them.

Fran Freimarck, director of the Pamunkey Regional Library System, said that, for librarians, new technology has "an impact on everything we do. We're not only training staff, but training the public."

The Pamunkey system, which encompasses counties ranging from Hanover to King and Queen, automated its catalogs years ago through a cooperative grant with the state library and J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College.

The system is now looking at Internet access at its libraries, though Freimarck said one of the problems for rural counties is no local dialing for Internet service. That means any Internet connection is a long-distance call.

She said some patrons are concerned that the emphasis on technology may be a negative.

"The thing I hear," she said, "is that we have to keep a balance between traditional library services and the need for the new technology.

"The new technology is so expensive, but so appealing, that it's easy to jump off the deep end and forget about the other needs."

Gary Robertson.