One of the foundations of any civilized community is that storehouse of information and knowledge known as the library. But in the digital age, many people are finding information on the Internet or on digitized media that can only be accessed with a computer. At the same time, the sheer amount of information available has grown enormously. All of this was the focus of a recent conference at Rice University in Houston, Texas on the future of libraries.
The traditional library held books and periodicals printed on paper. But much of the information found in libraries today is found on computers.
With so much information available at the click of a mouse, what role will libraries play in the future? That was a top question at the DeLange Library Conference, where even many participating librarians could not resist surfing the Web while listening to lectures.
The challenge of the digital age was very much on the mind of conference organizer and Rice University librarian Chuck Henry. "The library, as an institution that has been around for thousands of years, it is undergoing transformations that are really unprecedented."
Henry notes that just in the past few years humankind has produced more information than had been created in all the preceding millennia. Preserving and keeping track of all that data is a major challenge, even though much of it is now stored on multiple computer servers around the world.
"Even though there is a great deal of redundancy out there, most information is still subject to loss,” says Henry. “It is really a question of how do you manage the billions upon billions of Web pages and the tens of millions of books and journal articles and art images and audio files out there now in a coherent way so that they will be preserved and they will be maintained over time. We don't have policies for that right now."
The other question is what role should librarians play in an age when so much information is online?
Bryan Goodwin is a reference librarian at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. He says students and researchers still need help. "Often our questions are now fewer, but more involved. They have already tried to look elsewhere and they are running up dry and now they are turning to us to say, 'I need your help because I cannot find the information I am looking for’."
It is the human role that Goodwin believes will sustain the library as an institution in the years ahead. “Human beings, basically, are social creatures and they like that kind of interaction as much as separating and going off and being on their computers by themselves."
The thirst for knowledge and the need to manage information has been a part of civilization for thousands of years. Just ask Egyptian librarian Noha Adly. Her hometown is associated with the oldest name in library history.
"We have an institution with a very old name. The Library of Alexandria is the oldest library in the world. Sixteen hundred years after its destruction, we now have the new Library of Alexandria, which is a masterpiece and a very challenging project."
The loss of the ancient library at Alexandria is still bemoaned by historians and researchers today and underscores the fragility of the media on which information is stored.
But Noha Adly believes libraries are the foundation of any nation's efforts to enhance development and progress. "Libraries, really, these are the wealth of the information that is nourishing all the researchers and these are the seeds of any country, really," she says.
Adly and other librarians see an exciting future for libraries, both in the virtual world of computers and in the buildings where the knowledge is stored, organized and managed.