From the Library of Congress to small public libraries in distant corners of the United States, computer technology is inexorably changing the way people seek out knowledge.
Old card catalogs, where patrons stood fingering through drawers of 3-by-5 cards, are already fossils in many communities. ``Our catalog's been on-line for seven years,'' says Patricia Oyler, a professor of library science at Simmons College in Boston and a consultant to the Wellesley, Mass., public library.
The search software used in the library, Professor Oyler explains, enables people to easily find items in the catalog if they have even one key word. With the old cards, an author's full name, or the full title of a book, was needed.
A priority for most busy public libraries, says Oyler, is automation of their circulation systems, the heart of a library's business. Lending, renewal, and overdue records go from stacks or boxes of cards to electronic files. And the know-how gained from that transition, Oyler says, flows into the computerization of the book catalog.
Other computerized services include interlibrary loans and access to large data networks, such as the Internet, which can peer into catalogs anywhere in the US or the world. for that matter.
The ultimate in transfer from paper to bytes - putting whole collections of books and manuscripts on line - is currently out of reach technically and financially for most traditional libraries, but it is definitely on the screen. The Library of Congress is spearheading a move toward ``virtual'' libraries with the National Digital Library Project, which will put millions of items from its collection - books, historic manuscripts, drawings - in digital form.
The first phase of the project, scheduled for completion in the year 2000, will produce digital copies of some 5 million archival items - Civil War records and photographs, for example. These materials will be accessible to the public through computer terminals in libraries, schools, or at home. Many of them will probably also be published on CD-ROM. The $20 million or so needed for the project's initial phase is being raised from private foundations.
The Library of Congress may be the largest, but it's hardly the first institution to move toward a digital collection. Much of the private sector has already traveled far down that road. Many companies, such as US West, have put millions of pages of internal documents on line. Electronic look-up systems were pioneered by corporate librarians, says James Matarazzo, dean of the graduate school of library and information science at Simmons.
Professor Matarazzo says, however, that the concept of ``virtual libraries'' can easily be overplayed. He doesn't expect to see libraries go totally electronic anytime soon. Even with reams of material available on computer, most people will still need help finding the specific information they need. Librarians, therefore, could be as busy as ever. ``People who asked for help with cards will ask for help with the on-line catalog too,'' Oyler says.
Place is a central issue as well, says Matarazzo. Communities, and even companies, may want to keep the feeling of a traditional library. And library boards everywhere, budgets in mind, will have to decide what's important to have on line and what isn't. Job-placement information and stock prices are naturals, for instance. But will patrons want to read novels on line? ``I don't think so,'' Matarazzo says.
Even the old-style card catalogs are far from completely extinct. Howard White, editor of Library Technology Reports, a publication of the American Library Association, quotes one telling statistic: that 180 million to 200 million catalog cards are still sold each year.
On the other hand, says Mr. White, the number of companies selling computer technology to libraries has skyrocketed. And companies targeting just one facet of the library industry - school libraries, for instance - can have 10,000 to 15,000 customers.
White also notes that large telecommunications firms are moving into the library technology business. Chicago-based Ameritech, for example, recently bought Dynix, a Utah producer of library computer systems.
For all its futuristic appeal, electronic capabilities may actually enhance a library's role as the center of learning in a community, according to Chuck Fenton, who runs Renaissance for Libraries, a consulting service in Woodstock, Vermont. He envisions local librarians and high school students communicating electronically - the students request- ing particular information and the library staff finding the data and downloading it. More than ever, he says, the public library would be the hub of knowledge.
By networking with their library, which could in turn be plugged into national and international databases, local students would have a chance to wrestle with raw data and stretch their research skills, Mr. Fenton says.
The mid-sized city of Rutland, Vermont, with just under 20,000 inhabitants, has moved a little in this direction. Its public library is linked to four terminals at the local high school, where students can search the library's on-line catalog and order books. They pick them up after school.
The system, which started this fall, is helping the library staff anticipate the needs of teachers and students, says Paula Baker, director of the Rutland Free Library. ``It's a clear link between two agencies that should be connected,'' she says.