Digital Library of the Future May House Bytes, Not Books

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The library of the future may not be housed on bookshelves inside a building. Instead, it may exist as trillions of bits of computer code that can be transmitted over a telecommunications network to anywhere in the world.

"We're talking about replacing bricks and mortar with bits and bytes," said William Birmingham, a researcher at the University of Michigan, one of six universities that are developing prototype digital libraries as part of a federal research project.

Officials of the pilot projects--several of which are being tested in public schools--discussed the promise and problems of electronic libraries in a session last week here at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

While none of the researchers advocated the abolition of text-based libraries, many said electronic-storage and telecommunications technologies can vastly increase the variety of information available and the number of people who have access to it. But making such electronic browsing an everyday occurrence will require a great deal of interdisciplinary research, experts here said.

"We have incredible problems to resolve," noted Terry Smith of the University of California at Santa Barbara. "But we believe that the technologies that will allow such a system to be built are in place and they need to be integrated."

Linked to Libraries

A few school districts are experimenting with telecommunications links to give students instant access to public libraries, which often have more extensive and up-to-date collections than school libraries'.

The Santa Ana, Calif., district, for example, late last year launched "Project Knowledge Link."

The program allows students to electronically search a local public library's catalogue and obtain materials by using modems and telephone lines.

The system increases the number of volumes available to students by as much as 1,000 percent, project officials said.

John Phillipo, the executive director of the Center for Educational Leadership and Technology, a nonprofit research group in Marlborough, Mass., argued that information contained on the Internet, the global network of computer networks, is far richer than any school could afford to acquire.

"If you're looking for information on the Commonwealth of Independent States, you're not going to get it in many school libraries, because it's too current," he said in an interview. "The network can become the library."

New Challenges, Questions

The projects discussed here are far more ambitious in scope and much more technically challenging than simply linking patrons to the Internet.

Converting and storing volumes of text, journals, photographs, and other media into an easily accessible digital format is an unprecedented challenge, experts said.

At the University of Michigan, for example, researchers are developing "intelligent agents," or sophisticated software programs, that would help librarians and patrons search more efficiently through "stacks" of information on earth and space science.

High schools in Ann Arbor, Mich., and in New York City are test sites for the project.

But while digital libraries have the potential to make an array of resources widely available, they carry with them a host of questions about the nature and function of libraries, speakers noted.

As more materials are available at the press of a few computer keys, for example, threats to intellectual-property rights are likely to grow, requiring some form of electronic copyright protection.

Although it seems a relatively straightforward task to convert today's text-based library into its electronic counterpart, "there are very substantial questions about how that transformation happens," said Clifford Lynch, a researcher at the University of California at Oakland.


Howard D. Wactlar, the vice provost for research computing at Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, another of the pilot sites, argued that new approaches are needed to make digital libraries attractive and useful to most Americans.

Working with KQED-TV, the nation's oldest public-television station, the Carnegie-Mellon team is creating a video-based digital library.

Officials plan to test the program at the Winchester-Thurston School, a private school in Pittsburgh, and, by transmitting the signals over telephone lines, in the Fairfax County, Va., public schools.

As part of its National Information Infrastructure Initiative, the Clinton Administration has supported efforts to put libraries on-line through grants from the U.S. Commerce Department, noted Michael R. Nelson, an official in the White House office of science and technology policy. The digital-library project is being underwritten by the U.S. Defense Department, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the National Science Foundation.

Vol. 14, Issue 23

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