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The college library of tomorrow

Never mind Google. Several big universities are well on their way to building the library of the future.

Last December, Google started on a wildly ambitious and somewhat controversial plan to digitize the collections of some of the world's largest university and public libraries in an effort to make hard-to-find books accessible by the click of a mouse.

But out of the spotlight, a number of universities are already working on bookless, digital libraries that reflect a growing understanding of how today's tech-savvy students access information.

"The notion of a library as a physical collection has long ago been altered," said Michael Keller, university librarian and director of academic information resources at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's now physical and virtual."


What's new:
A number of universities are creating bookless, digital libraries that reflect a growing understanding of how today's tech-savvy students access information.

Bottom line:
As college collections morph into libraries of the future, the challenge will be maintaining the integrity of vast old libraries while embracing a new medium.

More stories on this topic

Stanford librarians aren't the only academics working on the libraries of tomorrow. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University of California school system, the University of Michigan and University of Virginia, among others, have also been digitizing their collections, developing new technologies and creating a lasting archive of electronic material.

"We're really in a period of challenging transition, where we sort of know how to provide digital access to information, but we're very concerned about how to build a scholarly record over the long term," said MacKenzie Smith, associate director for technology in MIT's libraries.

Within five years at Stanford--where Google's founders hatched the idea for their company in a graduate student dormitory--officials hope to build a bookless engineering library, Keller said.

Most of the plans for the engineering library are still being hashed out. But an engineering library, unlike a traditional library, particularly lends itself to going bookless because students are more concerned about finding information than about the presentation of that information. Shakespeare? Hemingway? Those books need to stay on a shelf. A treatise on Unix kernel development? Not so much.

Instead of physical books, the engineering library will house group study rooms, a communal workspace and computer terminals with access to millions of industry journals, scholarly papers, academic research and books in digital form, as well as the Web. Specialized librarians will teach students heuristics, or scientific methods to seek information.

Stanford is one of the universities working with Google, and it will eventually digitize the university's entire 8.7 million-volume collection. It's also working with the search technology company Grokis (or Grokker), which makes software that graphically depicts data and its relevant relationships. The university is testing Groxis software plug-ins for access to 350 different data sources, and it hopes to one day have hundreds of plug-ins available for students.

Stanford is also developing search technologies that evaluate results on a statistical or taxonomic basis, as opposed to a keyword basis. A project called TopicMap at Highwire Press, Stanford's search site for scholarly papers, lets people search for concepts in thousands of journals and displays those relationships in a graphical interface.

Making room for computers
The university even has storage space in the nearby city of Livermore so it can sock away books it no longer needs on the shelves.

On the East Coast, MIT has for nearly five years run "D Space," a repository to capture all types of digital material, including books, articles, theses, technical reports, images and simulations. The Cambridge, Mass., university is also working with publishers of print and online materials to obtain long-term access to digital copies that may be under subscription and that will eventually be pulled from the Web. MIT even has a supercomputer center in San Diego to store all that data.

MIT also has also begun using open-source software called "Lockss," created at Stanford, to harvest electronic journals from the Web so it can archive them for later use, even if the material is licensed. That way, if a journal ceases to exist, at least MIT has a copy of the information.

Other universities are also taking books off their shelves. The University of Texas at Austin, for example, moved nearly 90,000 volumes from a main library to other buildings to make room for computers. By the fall, the Longhorn campus will have a so-called "digital information commons" in the main library to help students find the books elsewhere.

Yet the biggest challenge to digitizing libraries are the concerns of publishers and intellectual property rights holders. Copyright laws have changed over time and can be different outside the United States. As a result, many book-digitization projects must entail copious amounts of time researching the rights of works and obtaining permissions.

In truth, a digital library transformation has been on the way since the late 1960s. Henriette Avram, a librarian working at the Library of Congress, pioneered a national catalog of books called the MARC (for machine-readable cataloging) record that was shared over a computer network.

"Libraries were ahead of everyone, including the CIA," said Stanford's Keller.

Some university plans were kicked into high-gear last year when the one of the largest publication libraries, the U.S. government, plans to make 95 percent of its material available exclusively in digital form on the Web this year.

Then Google upped the ante. Its initial digitization partners included Stanford, Harvard University, Oxford University and the New York Public Library. Yet Google has also stirred controversy among librarians that claim its book project violates the copyrights of authors and publishers.

The challenge, of course, will be maintaining the integrity of those vast old libraries while embracing a new medium.

"The library that acts as a steward will have to learn what it means to capture and persistently manage new vehicles of information," said Daniel Greenstein, associate vice provost of libraries at the University of California's Digital Library project. "It will have to change in order to stay the same."