Computers are used in libraries all over the world to provide access to a range of electronic information resources and to manage materials (books, journals, videos, and other media) held in particular collections. For many people, barriers of income, age, gender, or race can limit their access to computer technology and thus to the wealth of information that is available to others. The public library, with its history of providing free information, may offer access to the Internet and make a range of information sources available to everyone. Increasingly, via funds from national governments or from philanthropic agencies such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in the United States, relevant software, hardware, and network connections are being made available in public libraries so as to minimize this digital divide .
The huge size, complexity, and cost of early computers in the 1940s and 1950s meant that they were unsuitable for use in library and information work. However by the 1960s when transistors started to replace the original valves, and codes had been developed so that alphabetic characters as well as numbers could be input, stored, and output, work on library applications started. For instance, a study on automation at the U.S. Library of Congress (LC) was undertaken in 1963. A major problem faced was how best to "describe" a book to the computer. Following much debate, which also involved colleagues in Great Britain, a format known as MARC (Machine Readable Cataloging) was developed and is still being used for bibliographic records in libraries all over the world.
Now, the LC not only offers access to printed materials via its reading rooms in Washington but also makes available a wide range of electronic information resources. Many libraries, especially national libraries, digitize material in their collections so that anyone in the world who has access to the Internet can explore the wealth of these collections. Examples of material that could be digitized in a school or college library include past examination papers, previous works of pupils, relevant photographs, college yearbooks, and highly used printed materials. Copyright clearance must be acquired where necessary.
Electronic Library Catalogs
During the early 1970s, many public and academic libraries began using computer systems to help manage and control the basic processes of acquisition, cataloging, and the circulation of items (both books and journals) in their collections. At first programs were written locally, but by the end of the 1970s a number of organizations started to offer integrated software and hardware packages using the minicomputers that were then under development. In some instances libraries came together to form cooperatives and to develop shared databases of MARC records so that individual libraries did not have to create their own catalog records.
One example was Online Computer Library Center (OCLC)—a cooperative formed by college libraries in Ohio. OCLC's services expanded; by 2001 they were being used by 38,000 institutions in 76 countries. According to OCLC, its strategy is to develop a "globally networked information resource of text, graphics, sound, and motion" that will be supported by "a set of integrated, web-based tools and services that facilitate contribution, discovery, exchange, delivery, and preservation of knowledge objects and shared expertise of participating institutions."
Online Public Access Catalogs (or OPACs) started to appear in the 1980s. The OPAC module of an integrated library management system makes use of the techniques developed within online information retrieval systems. Library patrons can search the catalog by entering an author's name, the title of a book, or a subject term on a keyboard and view the results on a screen rather than looking through trays of catalog cards. The OPACs of many libraries in the world can be searched using the Internet. During the 1990s many of these library management systems were developed using software programs based on standard relational database management systems (such as Informix and Oracle), standard operating systems (like UNIX), and client/server technology using PCs. Among the companies and their library management products active in 2001 were Endeavor Information Systems (Voyager), Innovative Interfaces Inc. (Millennium), and Sirsi Corporation (UNICORN).
Computer networks have been used in libraries to link workstations in remote branches to centralized systems, allowing multiple sites to share facilities such as CD-ROM (compact disc-read only memory) drives and printers. Networks are also used to access external services. In the 1970s ARPANET (the forerunner to the Internet) and the commercial packet-switched network Tymnet were used by European libraries to access online information retrieval systems in the United States. The rapid developments of the Internet and the World Wide Web greatly influenced the services provided by libraries during the 1990s. Many libraries all over the world provide access to information on the web for their users. In countries where access to information was, or is, strictly controlled, this is a major development. Increasingly intranets are being installed in many organizations and library staff members can often provide the necessary information management skills for creating and maintaining information on intranet and Internet web sites.
Librarians today still need to select, acquire, and organize quality information resources for their patrons. A new challenge is that much information is published digitally as well as, or instead of, in print. Electronic journals, newspapers, and magazines are common and many books, including student textbooks, are available in electronic form as e-books (electronic books that are available for download onto e-book readers). As "e-learning" and virtual learning environments become more commonplace, the concept of a teacher/lecturer imparting knowledge in a classroom is yielding to less centralized approaches to education. Students are being given more responsibility for managing their educational resources through technology and new media formats. Librarians, in consultation with teachers, are therefore increasingly involved in making appropriate quality learning resources available for students.
Technological developments supporting the collection, management, and preservation of digital materials, the description of digital resources using techniques such as the MARC format, the creation of digital resources, and the implementation of electronic mechanisms for searching a range of resources have given rise to the phrase "digital library" to describe this new world of library science.
see also Database Management Software; Educational Software; Information Retrieval.
Lucy A. Tedd
LibDex: The Library Index. <http://www.libdex.com>
Online Computer Library Center, Inc. (OCLC) <http://www.oclc.org>