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 location. "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 libraries. 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 information." 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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