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Archive for Monday, April 5, 1993

LIBRARIES FACE ELECTRONIC CHALLENGE

April 5, 1993

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Alexandra Mason has worked at Kansas University since 1957 and is now Spencer Librarian and head of the department of special collections at the Spencer Research Library. She earned an A.B. degree in Greek at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley Mass., in 1952 and a master's degree in library science from the Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh, Pa. She was the first recipient of KU's Chancellor's Award for distinguished librarianship and currently is preparing for the Spencer Library's 25th anniversary celebration this fall.

Making the actual text and illustrations of books and articles available on a computer screen is an electronic development particularly interesting to libraries. This new resource already supplements other forms of publication and will eventually not only supersede many of the books and journals which are now printed on paper but lead to new uses of those books and journals.

By the use of this technology, it could be possible for a library like KU's Spencer Research Library to compile in electronic form collections of, for example, original maps illustrating the exploration of the Americas, excerpts from pioneer diaries, or selections from its rare books and manuscripts illustrating the development of ornithology or the history of books and printing. Schools and other organizations across the state could then have access to many of the resources of the rare books and manuscripts library on line or compact disk.

Ideas for a preliminary project employing the Spencer Library collections in this way are presently being explored by librarians and some interested faculty. If this works out, the celebration of the library's upcoming 25th anniversary will be not only a tribute to the people who built the library's collections but the start of an entirely new concept of service for the KU libraries' rare books and manuscripts departments.

BUT THESE exciting new forms of access will never answer all the needs of scholarship or of teaching. Not only are there hundreds of years' worth of publications which are unlikely to be turned into electronic form, but there are types of material which don't lend themselves to reproduction, electronic or otherwise, material to which it is vital for the reader to have not just intellectual but physical access. It is this type of material for which the Spencer Research Library and its opposite numbers throughout the world are and must continue to be responsible. We have to be able to provide the real thing.

Researchers need to be sure that unedited documents they are using are genuine and not forgeries or later copies. Textual historians need physical evidence from the books themselves to ascertain the sequence and reliability of texts. And teachers need to be able to put students in touch with the real evidence of the past, not just modern printings of significant texts.

The Irish comic character Mr. Dooley said "I know histhry isn't thrue, Hinissy, because it ain't like what I see ivry day in Halsted Sthreet. If any wan comes along with a histhry iv Greece or Rome that'll show me th' people fightin', gettin' dhrunk, makin' love, gettin' married, owin' the grocery man an' bein' without hard-coal, I'll believe there was a Greece or Rome but not befure."

STUDENTS OFTEN find it hard to believe in anyone who lived before they were born, or at the outside before their grandparents were born; those people are too far away to have anything to say to them. Like Mr. Dooley, they haven't had history show them real people living their daily lives, digging gardens, worrying about sick children, and advertising for their lost dogs -- hundreds of years ago.

Students get a very immediate impression of the life of a Pony Express rider from holding in their hands a real letter from one of Buffalo Bill Cody's relatives, all about the bad time "Billy" is having with boils where he meets the saddle. They understand that people who lived more than a hundred years ago were real people when they puzzle out the handwriting of Catherine Darlington's letters to her husband in Congress in 1810, sending him fresh clothing, worrying about him over-working, telling him how she is running the house and the farm and raising their children, and wishing he was at home. They learn to clothe the dry dates of cholera epidemics with personal reality when the diary of a young Irishman -- he went to India to make his fortune -- moves from descriptions of work and parties to the illness and death of fellow workers and ends with a complaint that he doesn't feel well. (I'll always remember the student who came out of the reading room with that diary clasped to his chest, saying in shocked tones, "He died!", as if it had just happened in front of him.)

THIS IS A particularly critical time for research libraries. There is more information for readers and researchers than ever before, they want it more quickly, and it costs more, while acquisitions funds are stable or even shrinking.

To cope with this situation, libraries like KU's have had to turn from trying to own all the sources of information to providing access to sources which are elsewhere. Inter-library loan, once a minor, postal-based supplement to the libraries' own collections, is now a sophisticated, computer-based, major library service. Electronic library catalogs and databases are used to find needed books and journal articles. Requests are sent by e-mail or FAX to libraries which own the actual physical or electronic form and copies of articles are returned in no time by FAX, although complete books still have to come by mail.

Electronic access to the information world is not cheap -- one database may cost several thousand dollars -- and libraries must link together cooperatively to provide these services. In Kansas, a plan has been developed to provide universal electronic connections between the Regents libraries, allowing them and their readers ready access to the resources throughout the system -- books, electronic databases and much other information. It won't be funded this year, which is a bad one for any proposal with significant startup costs, even an innovative plan which will ultimately save money, but this development will come sooner or later.

LIBRARIES LIKE Spencer have with other libraries the same demands for immediate provision of more and more information. They will make use of electronic helps like other libraries, but they must never forget to keep on building collections of real sources. Here in Kansas, Spencer has to support mature researchers and scholars who need original sources and, perhaps more important in the long run, it has to make it possible for our young Mr. Dooleys to "believe there was a Greece or Rome."

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