Working in the "Informated" Library: Grappling with Deep Change

Charles B. Lowry
Dean of Libraries, University of Maryland

Until very recently, libraries have been fundamentally Nineteenth--Century institutions, and may be characterized as labor-intensive craft workshops. As such, their organization has centered on specialized skills and knowledge applied to complex manual filing systems. Today, the Library is being transformed into capital intensive, high technology light industry or to use Zuboff's term "informated." Library managers are being asked to purchase the latest information technologies and invest in e-information while forecasters are saying that the future is uncertain and that books and libraries may be things of the past. This presents library managers with the somewhat ugly dilemma of having to predict the future while at the same time planning to pay for it and accept that the effects of information technologies may be so profound as to eliminate the need for libraries and librarians.

For the at least the last ten years, we have been hearing about the new electronic library. Many catch phrases have been used to describe it-virtual library, digital library, library without walls, and more recently the Internet has been loosely conceived as a kind of "large distributed library." The central fact is that there is so far no such thing-at least there is not a library one may visit electronically or otherwise and find the information traditionally housed in a large academic research library in the forms of books and journals.

There are two basic tasks that must be accomplished to really build the virtual library infrastructure, and neither is trivial. First: build a foundation of information technologies (IT) that allows users to access electronic information easily, seamlessly-and without becoming technology experts. Second, create a substantial amount of digitized scholarly information faculty and students might really want to use. . The keys to the technology infrastructure are distributed computing and networking; open architectures and standards; authentication, authorization, and encryption; and billing and royalty tracking.

Work in research libraries has always given primacy to that genre which is scholarly information and which is being broadened and transformed from print to digital expressions. Based on the evidence we now have it is reasonable to predict that the collections and access to the library will be increasingly electronic and will provide access to much more than analogs of the print world. Everything I have done in DL library research and development leads me to several conclusions, which I think must shape our plans for using IT in mediating scholarly information for our students and faculty. In using the phrase scholarly information, I mean to cast a very broad net which includes the core materials in any discipline that form the record of accepted knowledge, the material for future creation of knowledge and the basis of conveying that knowledge to students. I do not mean by this to convey the image of books and journals sitting on library shelves.

However, focussing exclusively on the impact of information technology and scholarly information as causes for change in academic and research libraries, misses other causes of "deep change" that are having a profound effect on the way libraries organize themselves and the work-life of people inside libraries. There are several forces inside and outside of higher education that add to the tranformational effects of IT. Lack of awareness of these forces leads to bad planning, decision-making and organizational change.


Some of basic assumptions which will shape our adaptation to new forms of knowledge include: