Johns Hopkins Gazette: February 20, 1996

Milton S. Eisenhower Library: Jim Neal's High-Tech Vision

Mike Field
Staff Writer

     Don't look now, but there's a big change coming at the other
end of your library card. The new technology and new expectations
that have collectively come to be known as the information
revolution mean that the traditional library--those stately
Victorian book mansions full of measured silence and shushing
attendants--are destined to follow the coal scuttle and the penny
postcard into nostalgic oblivion. 

     Gone already are the paper card catalogs and the confident
assurance that any first-rate collection will be able, as a
matter of course, to acquire all the major and important works
published in any given year. Going soon are the necessary trips
to the library to retrieve books and the time spent on location
perusing reserve materials.

     It's a brand new world out there, one in which the great
collections, formerly the leaders in the field, may soon be
followers, a world that belongs to the lean, computer-screened
and innovative, to the pioneers in the library sciences of the
21st century.

     All of which excites the heck out of Jim Neal. After five
months on the job, the R. Champlin and Debbie Sheridan Director
of the Milton S. Eisenhower Library sees assets where others may
have tallied debits and anticipates great possibilities in the
challenges ahead.

     "Historically, it was always the size of a collection that
was the chief criteria used to measure the quality of a library,"
says Neal, who came to Hopkins from Indiana, where he headed the
state university system of libraries that contained 5 million
volumes in 57 locations on eight campuses. The Eisenhower
collection, by comparison, contains some 3 million volumes in one

     "I believe these numbers become far less relevant in the
electronic environment," he says. "Now the goal is to provide
access and deliver information to where it's requested." 

     In the future, it's just possible that giant buildings
housing huge collections--formerly the mark of prestige among
libraries--will come to be seen as liabilities, consuming
disproportionate amounts of money for utilities, maintenance and
the general upkeep of a lot of information that is valuable only
to a very few. The problem will become particularly acute at
institutions that must choose between maintaining existing
collections and investing in the new technologies of information
delivery systems which, in light of recent history, seem to need
complete upgrading or replacing every five to 10 years.

     "I'm not suggesting we're going to see the end of the book,
I don't believe that's going to happen in our lifetimes," Neal
says. "The book is very stable, whereas the great challenge with
electronic information is that it's very volatile. Hardware
systems and software change all the time, which means the library
must constantly invest money to keep up with it. When you buy a
book, on the other hand, you can store it and keep it. It's very
portable and it's yours forever."

     Still, the new emphasis on information delivery--as opposed
to mere information cataloging and storing--presents tremendous
opportunities for a library like the Eisenhower to excel among
its peers. Though the largest collection in the state, the
library does not possess the breadth or scope of the collections
of many peer institutions and in total number of volumes seems
unlikely ever to achieve the stature of a Harvard, currently with
12 million volumes, or a Yale with 9 million. Another issue is
the somewhat idiosyncratic nature of the collection.

     "Library traditions are very different here," Neal says. "At
Hopkins there has been more of a focus on the research interests
of individual faculty. In the past we have responded more to
their specialized needs than perhaps at other schools. More
recently, there's been more of a policy-based collection building
process taking place."

     Neal feels the Eisenhower Library can become a leader in
providing the kinds of specialized services that patrons will
come to rely on more and more in the years ahead. "Over the next
few years I'd like to redefine what quality means in a library,"
he says. "We want to try to get the various libraries within
Hopkins working more effectively with one another, build
partnerships with other regional libraries and employ innovative
technologies to deliver information in new ways. We will of
course continue to build our collections, but the old emphasis on
acquisition will change. Delivery is now the key."

     One step toward greater coordination among the Eisenhower,
Welch, Peabody and other Hopkins libraries occurred this summer
when all agreed to use a single automated system for cataloging
and record keeping. 

     Neal has also been a force behind the creation of CIRLA--the
Chesapeake Information and Research Library Alliance--a regional
consortium consisting of the University of Maryland College Park,
Hopkins, Howard, University of Delaware, Georgetown and
Smithsonian libraries. CIRLA, says Neal, who serves as the
organization's first president, was established to try to
maximize through cooperation the resources of its member

     When speaking to groups, as he has done often in the past
five months, Neal likes to use the "three Vs" to illustrate his
vision of where he believes the library is headed. "The new
library will have to demonstrate virtuality, virtuosity and
virtuousness," he says.

     The first component, virtuality, refers to the increasing
significance the Internet and other computer networks will play
in the storage, retrieval and delivery of information. "The local
resources we assemble and create, combined with our ability to
effectively use the Internet, will define the quality of the
services we deliver," Neal says.

     But although computers will become increasingly central to
the library's activities, the traditional focus on acquisitions
will not disappear. If anything, it will become more precise and
specialized as knowledge continues to branch into many new
categories, now in many different formats. 

     "We must still be virtuosos in our collecting, which is a
library's societal responsibility," Neal says. "Whether it's
print or the electronic environment we still need to make choices
to meet the teaching and research needs of the university. We
have a budget that allows us to buy only a certain percentage of
the world's new material and now there are more formats to choose
from. The quality focus doesn't diminish in the electronic
environment. Far from it. Anyone who has explored the Internet
knows there is a huge range of quality, and there is only a
subset of that we want or need."

     Finally, there is the issue of virtuousness, not an abstract
issue in an organization created and dedicated to sharing. "The
virtuous library is defined by its willingness and ability to
share with others," Neal says. "We must be willing and able to
make our resources available to the larger community."

     The importance of learning to share and provide in new ways
is perhaps the most critical issue now facing libraries across
the country. As more and more households, businesses and
individuals are linked electronically through the Internet, whole
new opportunities for information sharing become possible.

     Currently, for instance, most members of the Hopkins
community can access Janus, the Eisenhower Library's card
catalog, through their Internet connections. Using that system,
an individual can search for a specific title, say a book of
poetry by A.E. Houseman, and learn certain information about the
book, including whether or not it is on the shelf.

     In the future, Neal foresees not only being able to check if
the book is available, but also being able to retrieve an
electronic version of the book that could be instantaneously
downloaded into the browser's computer. A trip to the library
could often be a purely electronic transfer at a considerable
savings of time, effort and expense to all concerned.

     Not only that, but the search for that book of poetry, which
currently follows a fairly linear progression, could be enhanced
through computers to include a wealth of related materials which
could also be retrieved electronically. The current Janus
software, developed in the 1970s, uses character commands and a
mainframe computer to link inquiries to a local database. Neal
foresees a new system that reaches out and gathers information
from across a much larger base of information. "The library focus
in the past has been to create pointers to information, but only
at the 'whole book' level," he says. "It doesn't tell you that
there is a related chapter in one book here, an article there and
so forth. What we need to do is build electronic linkages between
the access point and all these different sources of related

     Part of the challenge will be getting all these books and
articles into electronic format for instantaneous access. "We
have centuries of analog  information that is important and
relevant that we need to turn into a digital format," Neal says.
"We're going to have to look very carefully at what conversion
strategies are most effective."  The library already has scanners
that can "read" a book and convert the text on page into text in
the computer. But the process of scanning a book is slow and
labor-intensive, involving page-by-page entry and careful
comparisons between the printed and electronic texts, since the
computer will not infrequently 'misread' a word.

     One avenue Neal wants to pursue is teaming up with robotics
specialists in the School of Engineering to consider devising an
automated scanning system that would eliminate the need for hand
scanning every page. 

     Before much progress can be made in converting the library's
holdings to an electronic format, there are many serious issues
in copyright law that must be resolved, including the whole
concept of "fair use" and the library's legal ability to
reproduce and distribute copyrighted works electronically.

     "This is an extraordinarily exciting time because of the
transformation taking place," Neal says with considerable
enthusiasm. "It's confirmed the historical importance of the
library to the academic community. In the future, our functions--
selecting and organizing materials of quality, providing free and
open access, preserving and archiving that information for the
future and assisting individuals in retrieving that information--
will only become more vital. The basis of the information
revolution is being able to access what you need when you need
it, and we will be the ones to make that possible."

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