BOSTON — DO penguins have fur or feathers?
This is one of the more unusual of the 12,000 reference questions Apple Computer corporate librarian Monica Ertel and her staff answered this year.
``We are asked anything from annual sales of competitors to names of state capitals,'' says Ms. Ertel, explaining that the penguin question came from a computer graphics designer - and yes, they do have feathers.
The library, based at company headquarters in Cupertino, Calif., has a staff of 10 professional librarians, who work with a collection of 10,000 books, 700 periodicals, and 15 on-line database services. Once they have an answer, they deliver the information using state-of-the-art telecommunications systems that are rapidly edging out the yellow inter-office envelope.
``The last time I counted, we had 13 different ways to deliver information to users - most of them electronic,'' Ertel says. These include the company communications system called Applelink, and others such as Microsoft mail and Internet.
Corporate libraries, known today as information centers, are responding in minutes to reference questions that once took hours. The evolution of library services began in the late 1970s when on-line databases were introduced, with research printed out on smudgy thermal paper. In the 1980s, as database use became mainstream, the emphasis switched to faster methods of document delivery.
Software packages called ``groupware,'' which enable users in many parts of a company to share library research, are the latest addition. As more information is disseminated electronically, ``virtual libraries,'' or libraries without books, may become the norm in decades to come.
The high cost of updating services, however, has held some corporate libraries back. While Apple's library grew with the company, top management at many other firms hit by the recession cut library budgets. Even Bankers Trust, which librarians often cite as having one of the most technologically advanced research facilities in the country, closed its lower Manhattan library in March 1991, transferring two of the three staff members to a central library in its midtown office.
Even so, in today's highly competitive global business environment, information management is becoming more valued, says James Matarazzo of Simmons College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in Boston.
``In Japan, corporate information centers are a requirement, not an option,'' Professor Matarazzo says. Japanese companies place tremendous value on information and feel no need to justify information management expenditures, he adds.
This trend is starting to take hold in America's corporate libraries, Matarazzo says, as management demands fast, customized research, in some cases on a 24-hour basis. ``There are librarians out there who now wear beepers,'' he says, observing that the ``sun never sets'' on information services at large investment firms like Goldman Sachs & Co. and J.P. Morgan Securities Inc.
The proliferation of consumer on-line services like Compuserve, NEXIS/LEXIS, and Dow Jones has not eliminated the need for librarians, says David Bender, executive director of the Special Libraries Association, a 14,000-member industry association. ``As management expert Peter Drucker has said, there is a big difference between being computer literate and information literate,'' Mr. Bender told library science students in a recent speech at the University of Pittsburgh. Bender notes that while the evolution of computer and telecommunications technology is changing librarians' roles, it can enhance their value to organizations that need intelligent interpreters of the information. The new library at Putnam Investments, the Boston-based money management firm, exemplifies the evolution of library services.
``The library is not just a facility, but is a link between the world of information and the professionals who need it,'' says Jill Hayes, a Putnam vice president and director of information services. The library, which has banks of personal computers, CD-ROM players, and an overhead television screen tuned to a cable financial network, resembles a TV newsroom more than a quiet paneled study.
There are still loose-leaf binders of Moody's and Valueline company profiles on Putnam's library shelves, but items like analyst reports and SEC documents are printed from computer terminals or sent by electronic mail to executives' desks.
Ms. Hayes's job description has changed in the seven years since she joined Putnam. In addition to helping her staff answer more than 300 reference questions one week, she evaluated several integrated software packages and taught analysts to use on-line financial databases.