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, August 21, 1996

August 21, 1996 - Library Technology

The first time I ever saw a library terminal was in 1978.

At the time, the idea was revolutionary. Imagine being able not only to look up what the library owned (the card catalog did a pretty good job of that), but to find out if it was actually available!

But automating our library catalogs was tough -- the work of a whole generation of librarians. The hard part was the data: converting paper records into bits and bytes. Once that happened, there were four more purchases: library terminals, wiring the buildings, buying new phone lines, and training staff and public to use it all.

Once the work was done, however, automation saved big money for libraries. No longer did we have to type, and retype, and file, all of those catalog cards. No longer did we have to file every day's checkouts manually. No longer did we have to type thousands of overdue notices. It was all cranked out by the computer.

On the other hand, library automation, like every other kind of business computing, wasn't static. We bought new, more powerful central processors. We bought bigger, faster, hard drives. We replaced older terminals with new ones. But terminals were getting cheaper and better. So too were processors and hard drives.

Even so, it wasn't until the last two years, and really only this year, that two FUNDAMENTAL changes became necessary.

The first has to do with a whole new metaphor for moving around what we now call "cyberspace." The startling success of the World Wide Web isn't based on just the new information it offers. It's based on an easier way to use computers altogether: the icons, mouse, and other multimedia first introduced to the market by the Apple Macintosh, the metaphor of "the desktop."

But our older terminals are too clunky and too slow to take advantage of this new computing style. The old rate of data transmission (both over our internal wiring and the phone lines connecting our branches) was 9600 bits per second. That's plenty fast for text. But to move graphics and sounds, the new lowest common denominator of computer communications, we need speeds of at least 14,400 bits per second (a speed increase of about one and half times). A better speed would be 28,800 -- the speed of today's faster modems.

No speed would be too fast; all of them seem too slow. To stay current with today's torrent of data, libraries need a minimum "pipeline" of 56 kilobytes (57,600 bits per second) both internally and across branches.

As a result of these two key needs -- new workstations and a new telecommunications infrastructure -- most libraries in America are now facing a crisis of capital. For instance, the Douglas Public Library District has about 50 terminals. To replace them all with microcomputers would run about $1,800 each, or a total of $90,000. And of course, we'll be needing more terminals, by and by.

Many of our branches were wired with cables following a standard that has now been superseded. We may be looking at costs of another $10,000 to $30,000 to upgrade our internal communications.

Beyond that, to connect branch microcomputers to the Internet requires a jump in the bandwidth of our telephone lines. Current costs per line (at 9600 bits per second) are about $150 per month, or about $1,800 annually. Moving our phone lines to acceptable speeds will at least double that, at each library branch.

Moreover, the telecommunications equipment that attaches the phone lines to our computer will also have to be replaced.

By the time I add all this up, the library will need to spend a minimum of $200,000 over the next two years in order to position ourselves to be a player on the emerging World Wide Web -- to both receive data from, and contribute data to, a complex and responsive local and global network.

Like a lot of businesses, we've come to realize that these new technologies don't just save money anymore. Now, they cost money: to install, to maintain, and to manage. But also like businesses, libraries must remain competitive. Increasingly, these technologies bring previously unimaginable speed and convenience to a primary task of the library: the delivery of information to the general public, both within the library and without.

Our choice is to remain leaders in this arena, or fall behind. And this is one of many areas where libraries must be leaders.

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