VOLUME 30, NUMBER 33 THURSDAY, May 20, 1999

Electronics to replace books? Don't bet on it
Paper vs. computers not an either/or issue, but one of selection, UB librarians say

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News Services Editor

One aspect of the rich and complex history of human knowledge-its recording, transmission and preservation-has been altered irrevocably by the advancement of information technology.

New technologies have broadened vastly the spectrum of information resources that augment the book, and also have raised questions about whether, in libraries at least, electronic communication actually can replace books within the foreseeable future.

UB librarians say anything is possible, but the replacement of the libraries' millions of bound volumes by electronic versions is no more than a twinkle in the eye of someone who is not a librarian.

"Information technology is being touted on campus and elsewhere as the drug that will cure everything. But nothing cures everything," says archivist Christopher Densmore.

"First, we learned that there are some things information technology can't cure. Next, we find out that it actually cures nothing," Densmore says. "Then, we learn that IT does cure some things, but not the things it was expected to cure, and can produce new and difficult problems of its own."

Judith Adams-Volpe, director of Lockwood Library, agrees that issues of technology acquisition are dicey these days and predictions are difficult.

"We're involved not in an either-or (paper vs. computer) situation," she says, "but in a process of evaluation and judicial selection and application of technologies in a constantly changing library environment. Some applications will work better than others. Some decisions will stand the test of time; others will reflect our nearsightedness."

On the pro-tech side, the librarians applaud how this amazing new science has facilitated access to, and use of, the nine UB libraries. You can't beat computer technology, they say, for performing catalog searches, accessing reference material, storing government documents, linking to online periodicals, ordering paper copies of cataloged material, requesting interlibrary loans and directing users to sources of additional information, however distant.

Advances in online publishing now enable customers to download volumes into hand-held electronic books, and for a class, even download an entire course of "reserved" reading that might include books, chapters, journal articles, research abstracts and so on. Although the popularity of this methodology has yet to be demonstrated, it is expected to be part of the next big technology drive.

Digitizing the 18 million bound texts in the UB collections is quite another story, however.

"It would be virtually impossible right now," says John Edens, director of technical services for the UB Libraries. "The time required and the cost of the systems and human resources would be prohibitive, even if we thought it should be done, which we don't.

"Even all reference material isn't available electronically," Edens points out. "And it may never be. The production of electronic databases is commercially driven, so while the full texts of popular reference materials are online, vast amounts of scholarly material are still available only in journals and bound volumes. It doesn't sell well because it has a small audience."

Ellen Gibson, director of the Law Library, said that while the new technologies are very helpful, she also doubts that they ever will replace written texts.

"Let's say we ran out of money in our budget one year and couldn't pay for the online services of Westlaw, Nexus or Lexus. If we hadn't continued to receive full-text, paper editions of the law journals, we'd be out of luck," she says.

Densmore notes that the archival problems related to saving electronic documents is another consideration. "We know that paper lasts at least 500 years under the right conditions. We have no idea how long the information on a CD-ROM, a computer disk or a hard drive will be retrievable, but we know it's only a matter of decades, if that."

Edens also stresses that some documents are just more useful in bound form.

"I used to tell my staff that soon UB wouldn't need a paper telephone directory because we'd have it online," he says. "Well, I was wrong. The UB electronic directory is far less useful to most of us than the bound paper volume."

Barbara Von Wahlde, associate vice president for University Libraries, says that 80 percent of the libraries' acquisition budget is used to purchase hard-copy texts.

But collections that are growing constantly require space, she says. "Putting library materials online does save space, but it changes the physical configuration of the library in ways that may alarm traditionalists."

Those changes are very visible at UB. They include the proliferation of library "cybraries," the addition of once-forbidden coffee bars and refreshment stands inside the library, the reduction of carrels and putting more of the collection in storage.

Whatever the changes they provoke, Margaret Wells, director of the Undergraduate Library, says the new "cybraries" are a godsend for most students.

"They can find information fast," she says, "and they're more likely to extend their search beyond the Web site. They still have to read, understand and synthesize the material, of course. Our job is to make the information available to them."

Gemma DeVinney, coordinator of Web development and services for the UB Libraries, points to the enormous growth of BISON, once simply UB's electronic library catalog, as an example of the changes that await us.

"BISON is now the name of the overall UB Libraries Web site http://ublib.buffalo.edu/libraries," DeVinney says. "Its amplified function makes it a true 'virtual library'-from the comfort of your office, residence-hall room or home, you can perform many standard library functions over BISON: do primary research, ask reference questions, make suggestions or use it as a gateway to vast numbers of other digitization projects, such as the Library of Congress' 'American Memory Project.'"

In the meantime, Wells says, "the Undergraduate Library at UB is more central to student life than it has been in a long time. Kids are online, sitting and reading, having coffee, working together in groups, gathering to talk or to help one another. An unexpected feeling of community has evolved from the expanded availability of computer technology in the UGL this year."

If the bookless library isn't just around the bend, neither is the paperless library or the paperless campus. Edens points out that students, once forced to take judicious notes from bound texts, now regularly pull and print hundreds of linear feet of records-90 or more pages at times-from library computers. Libraries today, he says, actually generate much more paper than they did 20 years ago.

Since victory never goes to the Luddites, we can expect the accelerating rate of change to produce an astonishing new chapter in the mingled histories of books, libraries and technologies.

"We're at the very beginning of an extraordinarily exciting era" says DeVinney," and the changes already in place here serve as signposts to a very different kind of library yet to evolve."

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