Probing Question: How is the computer age changing libraries?

May 21, 2009 By Jesse Hicks
Probing Question: How is the computer age changing libraries?
Image: Dan Chibnall

For those of us of a certain age — no need to put a number on it, thank you -- the word "library" still conjures forth memories of solid wood cabinets filled with hand-typed cards, each pointing to a book housed on imposing, steel-blue shelves. All those books -- representing centuries of learning -- took up a lot of space and gave the library a slightly intimidating air. It was a quiet, austere space devoted to solitary thought and research.

Fast forward to today’s world. Want to have a peek at Mozart’s composition notebooks? Interested in audio narratives of former slaves? Need to see the mathematical proofs of Archimedes? With archivists racing to digitize their collections, armchair scholars can tap into the world’s treasure trove with a click of the mouse.

Wireless technology has enabled Internet access virtually everywhere, while computers have shrunk to pocket-size. has largely supplanted the dead-tree Encyclopedia Britannica. If everyone can now carry a virtual library in his or her pocket, what happens to actual, real-life ? How are digital media changing libraries?

"The image of a library as a staid and outdated place is untrue," says Lisa German, assistant dean for Technical and Collections Services at the Penn State University Libraries. “Libraries are vibrant places, full of life and change,” and with the rise of digital media over the last two decades, libraries have evolved accordingly.

While digital media make it easy to use research materials almost anywhere, German doesn't see the physical library going away any time soon, or becoming simply a bank of computer terminals. "People are coming to libraries -- at least to Penn State's libraries -- as much as they ever have, if not more so," she says. What's changed is the way in which students use the library space.

Unlike its brick-and-mortar counterpart, a library’s digital presence is open around the clock, a feature today’s scholars have come to expect. Like the Internet, today's libraries must be everywhere -- digitally. As German explains it, "We're trying to not only draw people into the libraries to make our materials accessible; we're also pushing the materials out to them."

Michael Furlough, assistant dean for Scholarly Communications at the Libraries, sees today's students collaborating more than their predecessors. Able to do solitary research from anywhere, students increasingly take advantage of the social aspects of the library, such as open study spaces and group meeting rooms. Recent studies suggest that digital media, far from turning students and researchers into lonely, disconnected readers, have actually promoted more networked modes of learning. (Digital humanities scholars, for example, seem to do much more collaborating than their "traditional" counterparts.) Digital media have helped transform libraries into communal spaces for students to research, discuss, and study together—which, notes Furlough, has made them much louder places than you may remember.

Easy access to material has changed the nature of scholarship, notes German, but so has the sheer quantity of material available. Massive digital databases have allowed researchers to re-discover overlooked knowledge, to make new connections among and within disciplines, and to find work they never knew existed.

German points to Google's project to digitize the world's libraries as an example of this era’s expansiveness. More information makes possible new knowledge, she allows, but it can also make a student’s task more difficult.

Furlough agrees that "the more material we get out there online, the less people are able to easily digest it and filter it all out." For students with little experience of research in a university setting, many of whom grew up with "media centers" rather than traditional libraries, information overload can be paralyzing. (Imagine using the Internet without knowing how to use a search engine.) As German and Furlough see it, one future role of the library and librarians will lie in helping students navigate a vast and shifting sea of information—a sea that only grows wider and deeper as digital media proliferate.

Perhaps the function of the library hasn't changed much at all in twenty years. Though its walls have grown porous and its reach global, it still represents a repository of human knowledge. And though librarians no longer school us in the Dewey decimal system, they still are invaluable guides for travelers exploring an ever-expanding virtual storehouse of information.

Source: By Jesse Hicks, Research/Penn State

Explore further: The ethics of driverless cars

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Google to Index Major Libraries

Dec 14, 2004

As part of its effort to make offline information searchable online, Google Inc. today announced that it is working with the libraries of Harvard, Stanford, the University of Michigan, and the University of Oxford as well ...

Major universities see promise in Google Book Search settlement

Oct 28, 2008

(PhysOrg.com) -- Stanford University, the University of California and University of Michigan announce today their joint support for the outstanding public benefits made possible through the proposed settlement agreement submitted to the United States District Court, S ...

Humanity's earliest written works go online

Apr 21, 2009

(AP) -- National libraries and the U.N. education agency put some of humanity's earliest written works online Tuesday, from ancient Chinese oracle bones to the first European map of the New World.

Gen Y logs on at the library

Jan 01, 2008

More Americans turn to the Internet for issues such as illnesses, finances, taxes and careers rather than look to other information sources, a survey found.

Recommended for you

Oregon sues Oracle over failed health care website

2 hours ago

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum says she's filed a lawsuit against Oracle Corp. and several of its executives over the technology company's role in the state's troubled health insurance exchange.

Google buys product design firm Gecko

2 hours ago

Google on Friday confirmed that it bought Gecko Design to bolster its lab devoted to technology-advancing projects such as self-driving cars and Internet-linked Glass eyewear.

Lawsuits challenge US drone, model aircraft rules

3 hours ago

Model aircraft hobbyists, research universities and commercial drone interests filed lawsuits Friday challenging a government directive that they say imposes tough new limits on the use of model aircraft ...

Fitbit to Schumer: We don't sell personal data

6 hours ago

The maker of a popular line of wearable fitness-tracking devices says it has never sold personal data to advertisers, contrary to concerns raised by U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer.

User comments : 2

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

joex
5 / 5 (1) May 21, 2009
Dewey decimal system is the dumbest system I can imagine. Library of Congress is easily 14x better.
vika_Tae
not rated yet May 22, 2009
Libraries have changed, this is true. The electronic records systems make it so much easier to find a book, anywhere on the library network, then book it when it comes back in - and find out it went AWOL six months ago, its the only one in the county, and no-one bothered to update the records.