This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, November 4, 1992

November 4, 1992 - virtual library

At a recent Colorado Library Association annual conference, I was asked to speak (with several other people) on something called "the virtual library."

It was a hot topic. As I wrote in my September 16 column, electronic access to library collections has proven to be very popular with the public, and to some, heralds an all-electronic, or "virtual" library. The meeting room was packed.

The first speaker, a librarian from a university in Nevada, highlighted the growing number of libraries whose catalogs are now available through a "scholar's workstation" -- meaning a PC with a modem and phone line. She also talked about a number of so-called "knowbots" -- software tools that in some respects, act like librarians.

One of these programs, called "gopher," is a kind of switchboard operator, connecting you to an information source (library catalog, campus information system, even electronic books), then returning you to a master directory when you're done.

Another is called "archie" -- a program that calls all over an international network of computers every night to see what's new in the way of computer programs, then updates its master list. You can send an electronic-mail message to archie asking for a certain program name, and archie will send a mail message back to you telling you which computer system has it.

Remember, archie is not a real person. But is archie a "virtual librarian"?

Another speaker cautioned against what she called "techno- phoria": it doesn't do anybody any good to have access to a lot of electronic catalogs if nobody actually has the book. This speaker, a university librarian in Fort Collins, displayed some grim charts showing the rising cost of academic journals, and the stagnant and/or declining budgets of many university libraries.

Put briefly, all library materials cost more than they used to. The nation's largest libraries are able to buy fewer and fewer items these days. Are computer networks going to adequately counteract this trend? She didn't think so, and neither do I.

My comments approached the issue from the public library perspective. I granted that the availability of many kinds of information -- electronic encyclopedias, dictionaries, newspaper articles, magazines indexes and summaries -- is a significant advance for libraries, and I welcome these new tools.

But in most discussions about the "virtual library" nobody talks about the recreational and social side of library services.

In Douglas County, for instance, many young families view children's story times as an important social -- as well as literary -- event. These programs introduce children to the excitement of books, to the shared culture of literacy, long before any of them have started typing.

And what about popular fiction, or reading for fun generally?

Some months ago, I sat my daughter Maddy, then four years old, in front of an "electronic book," a computer CD connected to a Macintosh. It was called "Grandma and Me," and she had a blast. The "book" not only ran short animated sequences (Grandma and child walking down to the bus stop, etc.), but also spoke the words in the book out loud.

Maddy could also click the "mouse" on various "hot spots" around the screen for some surprises. For instance, when she clicked on the hole in a tree, a little squirrel stuck his head out, squeaked, ran around the tree a couple of times, then dived back into the tree.

It took Maddy a good two hours to work her way through the book, and she loved every minute of it. The same book in print takes maybe 10 minutes.

All this sounds great, right? It's interactive, it's engaging, it's playful, and it wasn't even all that expensive. The "Grandma and Me" CD sells for about $25.

But I don't know anybody, once they've used this, that shows much interest in using it again. By contrast, Maddy has literally hundreds of regular print books that she wants to have read to her over and over.

Libraries are indeed at an interesting juncture. Increasingly, you'll see all kinds of information available electronically, sometimes long before it ever "sees print."

But as I said at the conference, until you can carry a virtual book into a virtual bathroom and get real relief, we're a long way from the virtual library.

We still need "real" libraries, with real books in them. And in my opinion, the printed book will be around for a long, long time.

It's a virtual certainty.

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