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The Mixing Chamber
If you’re over 30, today’s libraries are probably nothing like the ones you remember from childhood. Enter any major library today and you’ll find an armory of computers and a platoon of specialists, from the reference librarians who are expert at accessing online resources, to the acquisitions officers who decide which books, CDs, DVDs, and subscriptions to purchase, to the computer geeks who keep the building’s network running.

Digitization and the growing power of the Internet are making all of these people’s jobs more complex. Acquisitions experts, for example, can no longer just rely on the traditional quality filter imposed by the publishing industry; they must evaluate a much larger mass of material, from newly digitized print books to the millions of Web pages, blogs, and news sites that are born digital. “On the Internet, publishing is a promiscuous activity,” observes Abby Smith of the Council on Library Information and Resources. “Libraries are confused and challenged about how to collect and select from that material.”

Then there are the problems of cataloguing and preserving digital holdings. Without the proper “metadata” attached – ­author, publisher, date, and all the other information that once appeared in libraries’ physical card catalogues – a digital book is as good as lost. Yet creating this metadata can be laborious, and no international standard has emerged to govern which kinds of data should be recorded. And considering the limited life span of each new data format or electronic storage medium (have you used a floppy disk lately?), keeping digital materials alive for future generations will, ironically, be much more costly and complicated than simply leaving a paper book on a library shelf.

But even if every book is reduced to a few megabytes of 1s and 0s residing on some placeless Web server, libraries themselves will probably endure. “There is no one in the field of librarianship who thinks the library is disappearing as a physical space,” says Smith. Seattle’s exuberant new Central Library, for example, ­is built around a four-story spiral ramp that enables an unprecedented immediacy of access to its physical book collection. But at the same time, the library provides 400 public-use computers (compared to 75 in the library that previously occupied the site), buildingwide Wi-Fi access, and a high-tech “mixing chamber” where an interdisciplinary reference team uses an array of print and electronic resources to answer patrons’ questions. More than 1.5 million people visited the new library in 2004 – almost three times the entire population of Seattle.

“The real question for libraries is, what’s the ‘value proposition’ they offer in a digital future?” says Smith. “I think it will be what it has always been: their ability to scan a large universe of knowledge out there, choose a subset of that, and gather it for ­description and cataloguing so people can find reliable and authentic information easily.” The only difference: librarians will have a much bigger universe to navigate.

Stephen Griffin, the former director of the National Science Foundation’s Digital Libraries Initiative (a Clinton-era project that funds a variety of university computer-science studies on managing electronic collections), takes a slightly different view. Ask him how he thinks libraries will function in 2020 or 2050 – once Google or its successors have finished digitizing the world’s printed knowledge – and he answers from the reader’s point of view. “The question is, how will people feel when they walk into libraries,” he says. “I hope they feel the same – that this is a very welcoming place that is going to help them to find information that they need. As we bring more technology in, the notion of libraries as places for books may change a bit. But I hope people will always find them a comfortable place for thinking.”

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