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Columnist
How the Internet will change libraries is at the front of my mind
By Sarah Long | Columnist
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Published: 9/25/2007 12:03 AM

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One could make the case that libraries as we know them are an endangered species.

Ordinary people are saying, "In the age of the Internet, when everyone has a computer, why do we need libraries?" Or, "I get all the answers I need from Google."

At the same time, the most current national data on library use shows that libraries are alive and well. The number of visits to public libraries increased 61 percent between l994 and 2004. According to the 2007 State of America's Libraries report, 1.8 billion visitors borrowed more than 2 billion items from U.S. libraries in fiscal year 2004.

Clearly there's a dichotomy between some people's perceptions of the future of the library and other people's use of the library.

As a librarian, I worry about the future of libraries. I know that people born after l980 are very different from those of us who were born earlier. These less-than-30-year-olds were born digital. All their lives they've had computers and digital toys of various descriptions. There is some evidence that they actually think and process information differently as a result.

Libraries are busy now, but will they be busy in 10 or 20 years when the "digital kids" will be running things? I worry that libraries will not change enough or change fast enough to keep the next generation engaged as users, and let's face it, willing to pay the taxes to keep libraries vibrant and vital.

Back in the l950s, America's steam-powered railroads were arguably at their zenith. But right around the corner were diesel-powered engines along with fast, convenient and relatively cheap air transport. Remember also that the Interstate highway system was beginning to be built, which would make cars not only the king of the road but the transportation mode of choice.

What might an all-powerful and clairvoyant railroad magnet have done to maintain the position of rail travel and usage? Some have suggested that railroad decision makers were not thoughtful about the best use of their assets. Perhaps instead of thinking they were in the rail travel and usage business, they should have realized that their biggest asset was land. Or maybe they should have realized that this was a battle of convenience and that rail travel and usage had to be dramatically easier to use if it was to compete with the new rivals. Or maybe there was really nothing that could be done.

Are America's library planners and decision makers in a position today similar to the one of railroad planners and decision makers in the 1950s? Perhaps.

Over the next months, I will be interviewing a wide range of people regarding their thoughts on libraries at the crossroads. These conversations will be available as occasional podcasts which can be accessed at www.sarahlong.org/podcast.

My first guest will be Mary Ghikas, senior associate executive director of the American Library Association.

Ghikas makes the point that libraries of all types are finding a significant role as gathering places for the communities they serve. She also points out that libraries are vital in part because that's where the librarians are. Ghikas characterizes librarians as professionals with a commitment to the word, however it is presented. Ghikas sees the future of libraries as being more digital with librarians more involved in archiving and organizing digital information.

Hear the complete conversation at www.sarahlong.org/podcast.