Books and Bits

UA libraries must embrace a digital future

The ""library-in-your-pocket"" is a favorite cliché of geeks, futurists, and marketing men everywhere. But as well worn as the idea is, it's not too far away. Experts estimate that the massive collection of the Library of Congress contains about 20 terabytes of plaintext data-an amount that may sound large, but could currently be stored easily on a couple hundred iPods. As data-storage technology inexorably improves, universal access to unfathomable amounts of information is becoming a part of life many take for granted.

As children, most of us headed to the library with laminated cards in hand, ready to rifle through card catalogs and tussle with the inscrutable vagaries of the Dewey Decimal System. Today, most expect the information we need to be mere keystrokes away-indexed, searchable, and available online. As information continues to grow more and more directly digitally accessible, the UA library must be prepared-both strategically and financially-to embrace technological change.

Facing a stagnant budget for acquiring new material that's quickly being outpaced by inflation, the UA's main library cut subscriptions to 870 academic journals and 5800 print monographs this year. Losing this material is alarming, but there's nothing wrong with removing redundant physical copies of journals, as long as access to the information contained in them doesn't decrease as well.

Unlike textbooks and reference volumes, which still have their physical place (at least for now), periodicals, journals, newspapers, and magazines lend themselves well to digitization, especially when good tools to search them and extract useful information are available. And for books, digital access allows many users to access the same material at once-say goodbye to waiting weeks for that pesky honors student to return the only copy of ""Developments in Tapeworm Psychology"" available in the western hemisphere.

Unfortunately, the most recent round of library cuts eliminated access to some information. Although some of the axed journals are still available online, others are only accessible on loan from other university libraries, and a few others are now gone for good. Tools to access information online are essential-but it's also important to ensure that content is available to be searched. The library should expand its collections to include as many digital journals as possible-and it has, purchasing more online materials with separate funds from a student fee. These acquisitions should continue.

As the knowledge contained in the big tan building is made increasingly available on the Internet, the library should be prepared for its physical function to change. Even today, the library exists in two worlds-the digital realm, where information must be ubiquitously, quickly, and easily available, and the physical one, where the library's task is quickly becoming providing a useful study space for students, and offering access to a wealth of digital information through public access terminals. Stacks of journals and back-issues of magazines are beginning to become anachronisms.

Sure, students may have a romantic connection to rifling through big, musty old books, but making information more accessible and providing tools to organize it is more important.

The library already offers excellent resources over the Internet-searchable databases containing thousands of digitized journals, real time access to librarians and reference pages over instant messaging, and even an ""express document"" service that provides scanned chapters of physical books on request. These are useful and powerful tools, and in the future, the library should provide more of them. The library of the future may arrive sooner than we expect.

OPINIONS BOARD: Editorials are determined by the Wildcat opinions board and written by one of its members. They are Justyn Dillingham, Allison Hornick, Sarah Keeler, Connor Mendenhall and Jerry Simmons.


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