Redefining Libraries In the Age Of the Internet

ASK a traditionalist what a public library should look like and the description will probably be low-tech: Lots of books on shelves. Card catalogs in wooden drawers. Patrons browsing through the stacks, heads tilted as they read row after row of titles on book spines.

But ask a futurist the same question and the ideal goes high-tech. A public library, the visionary will say, must serve as a repository of electronic information: Plenty of computers and modems and CD-ROMs. Card catalogs on blinking screens. Users roaming through a global network of databases simply by pressing computer keys.

As low-tech meets high-tech in libraries across the country, librarians face a daunting challenge: how to afford both books and technology. Traditionalists and futurists may hold different views of what a library should offer, but they share a common, urgent goal: seeking money and support at a time when Congress has proposed cutting library funding.

That goal runs as a theme through this week's observance of National Library Week, sponsored by the American Library Association. Pointing out that cutting library funds means depriving patrons not only of books but of on-line services as well, the group is urging Congress to increase annual federal support from the current 57 cents per person to $1 per person.

The extra 43 cents, according to Linda Wallace, director of public information for the American Library Association, would help libraries pay ''primarily for technology, to make sure every library is connected to the information superhighway.'' Even with that increase, spending on libraries would account for less than 1/100th of 1 percent of the federal budget.

Not all news is bleak during this week of celebration. Last month Denver opened a $72 million Central Library, designed by renowned architect Michael Graves and hailed for its futuristic capability. A new library is under construction in San Francisco. These follow the opening four years ago of the $144 million Harold Washington Library Center in downtown Chicago.

But the fanfare surrounding such high-visibility success stories masks serious problems facing other libraries. Many have had to cut hours and staffs. Some old buildings need rewiring and renovation. Other facilities are so cramped that every time a new book is added, an old one must be tossed out.

Undaunted, some institutions are turning to creative financing. The new Denver library includes a gift shop where patrons can buy T-shirts, postcards, bookmarks, and mouse pads. Another library, Ms. Wallace says, operates a coffeehouse.

But these moneymaking efforts, however enterprising, aren't enough. ''Libraries are a public service,'' she says. ''They're part of our democracy. Government needs to invest in them.''

Today, when information is as likely to come from a computer as from a book, the obsession with the information superhighway will not go away. For the majority of Americans who don't have a computer in their homes, libraries are, as the library association maintains, ''a logical on-ramp to the information highway.'' The group is right: Government can play a leadership role in ensuring public access to new technology.

But however important the ''electronic book'' becomes, the library's original purpose -- as a repository and clearinghouse for the printed word -- remains essential. As Wallace herself says, ''We need books too. It's not an either/or choice.''

Until technology makes available a low-cost, highly portable laptop that enables a user to read ''War and Peace'' on a train or plane or bus, the book remains the state-of-the-art medium for the easy transmission of information and inspiration -- everything from the driest data to the most heartfelt poetry.

Long live the book. And long live the public library, that most democratic of institutions, where a world of information is available for the simple act of asking and for the unbeatable price of a free borrower's card.

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