Research libraries in the next century

Grein í Nordinfo nytt 1995, 4:8-15


Advances in computer communications and the subsequent changes in information seeking behaviour are dominating factors in shaping research libraries of the future. The development of telecommunication technology is described in this article and an attempt is made to forecast the effect these changes will have on the research library. The education of research librarians is also considered in connection with the role of the research libraries at the turn of the century.


Telecommunications technology 

Telecommunications systems are devices and techniques used for the transmission of information over long distances via wire, radio, or satellite. A wide variety of information is transferred by such systems, including sound, visual images, computer-processed data, and telegraph and teletypewriter signals. (1)


The telegraph was the first system of telecommunication. It was used as a communication system between businesses and the public in United States and Europe from 1845. In 1850 the first press wire services in England were implemented by Paul Julius Reuter and in 1875 the Associated Press was running the first intercity wired service between New York-Philadelphia-Baltimore-Washington.


Alexander Graham Bell patented the telephone in 1876 and the first commercial switchboard was used in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1878. The most significant problems of telecommunication was to find a way for more users to use the lines without disturbances and thus the development of the lines of communication was of utmost importance. In 1956, transatlantic cables were laid between Scotland and Newfoundland. The cables could handle 60 telephone conversations at a time.


The connection between computers by telephone started in the United States in the 1970?s and when I was a library student at the University of Iceland in 1979, the very first on-line search in the Dialog databases was conducted at the Nordic House in Reykjavik before a large crowd of librarians. Until then, a request would be sent to Sweden in order to search databases located in the U.S. In the 1980?s, most research libraries had access to a mainframe computer and were able to conduct on-line searches. Connections were rather slow, the mainframe computers were expensive to operate and the skills to run them very specialised. The searches and keeping of online bibliographic databases were quite expensive. The situation started to change with the introduction of the personal computer in 1981, and during the last five years the computer technology has developed so that most computers have a built-in modem as well as telefax. The PC´s have become affordable, simple to use and fast.


Microsoft Corp. is currently a dominating force in the development of PC software. The company?s mission statement is: A computer on every desk and in every home. In an interview given on the company?s twentieth anniversary Bill Gates, chairman and founder of Microsoft, describes the future of communications as three stages of connectivity: „…to simplify things, there are also certain data types. There?s text, still images, audio and video. On today?s telephone lines – what I?m calling narrowband – text is fantastic and still images are adequate. On midband (ISDN), still images are fantastic, and video is barely adequate. On broadband, video is fantastic, and, of course, everything else is fantastic.“(2) As to when we get to the broadband stage, Gates believes that within two decades there will be millions of homes connected. This would mean that ten years from now, a computer in the home connected to the outside world will be as common as the telephone is now and we might not need to look much further into the 21st century to find cordless computers that will enable us to connect to information sources anywhere in the world.


Technological changes expand research specialities, forcing specialists to become more specialised, and what used to be one field of science ten years ago has developed into many subfields. Examples can be taken from medicine, genetics and engineering. This increasing specialisation also affects the research libraries, some become more specialised and new divisions for new subject areas are developed in other libraries. Research librarians need to keep up with the development. They must actively use the advances of communication technology to facilitate manual jobs in the library and strive to give their users better access to library collections as well as other information sources.


Users of research libraries 

In order to understand the situation of the research library we have to visualise how the technology has changed the behaviour of the users, because our business is to provide service and in order to stay in business we have to understand the needs of our customers.


Research scientists use different means to stay up-to-date in their field. They depend partly on means of personal communication and many hold personal subscriptions to the most important periodicals in their field, often through membership in a society. In the early eighties when E-mail communication became available, researchers were among the first to use it for personal peer communication all over the world.


It is common for a scientist embarking on a new project to do some initial search on his own in the information sources of the library to acquaint himself with the subject matter. Further information can be found there with the help of the specialist librarian, either through the library?s own resources or through on-line searches in specialised databases that have been available for more than twenty years. To search these databases, specialised training is needed and a research librarian possesses the necessary skills. On-line searches in databases were part of the curriculum in most library schools in the late seventies. In Iceland on-line searches have been a part of the curriculum since 1981.


Some very technically minded researchers have obtained on-line access to databases and learnt how to search them, but most ask the specially trained librarian for assistance. An experienced librarian that frequently uses a database and knows its structure well will be able to search much more effectively than an occasional user. To access the structured databases that hold information in most specialities, it is necessary to keep an open account and it is not yet cost effective for an individual to hold such a subscription unless it is used fairly often. The library and information specialist has usually provided the actual text of articles found on the databases for the researchers. Although database producers have been making it simpler to conduct searches it seems that most researchers still seek the help of an information specialist. This might change as more data becomes available via Internet. Services such as Uncover make it easy for the researches to find material and to obtain the actual text of the articles. Access to these information sources is not free, and there is a need for specialists to navigate through the mass of data and information that is available on-line. We can expect that, most researchers will continue to ask the specialist to handle these tasks for them rather than spending their time on keeping up with the resources available.


As artificial intelligence develops even further there will be tools available for retrieving information. Scientific American?s 150 year anniversary issue describes the development of „agents“ that screen the on-line information for their owners.(3) These agents build on assumptions about what their owners want and need. Most of us already use similar software on a regular basis such as spelling „wizards“ in word processors. They correct our spelling as we type and change to capitals after a period etc. As the clever agents become more advanced and available on-line will our skills then become obsolete?


We can of course assume that technology will continue to change the information seeking behaviour of people. An example of this occurred in my own home. My seventeen year old son wanted to find out about the spacecraft Voyager. He logged into the computer and searched on the Internet by using Web Crawler and Veronica and found a lot of references including the NASA home page with very detailed information. His mother, the research librarian, was a bit surprised and thought: I would have started out by looking in the printed version of Britannica. The point of this anecdote is that there is a certain generation gap in the information seeking behaviour of people and the research librarian will have to adjust to that. Also it shows us that there is more information available at our fingertips at home than ever before and that will also change the structure of the research libraries. Another anecdote about my son?s behaviour: He needed a paper from a friend who lives about twenty minutes away from our home. As the family car was not available he called his schoolmate and asked him to send the paper by Internet. These young men are not researches (yet), but their information seeking and transfer is rather sophisticated and a sign of things to come.


The virtual library 

The Gopher that became available on the Internet around 1990 changed the accessibility of information sources for librarians and scientists. The introduction of the Mosaic software made it possible to use computer graphics over the Internet and more attractive for the general public. The World Wide Web was introduced in 1992 and access to information for anyone connected to the Internet changed enormously. This is not limited to receiving information, but it also enables people to put forward their own views without publishers, editorial boards and reviewers.


Through the World Wide Web, the virtual world is there for everyone who has the necessary equipment. Virtual reality can be described as permitting people to behave as if they were somewhere they are not in reality.(4) Thus the virtual library is a library which a person can access from anywhere, rather than depending on actually being on the site. The user can browse the catalogues of many libraries and sometimes access the material. This can be done from a computer at home, in the office and from other libraries and in the future a public computer may be as easily available as the public telephones are today. Similarly, the virtual office is a workplace independent of location, moving with the individual where ever he goes. In the virtual office all the necessary information is on-line, and the worker only needs to meet his co-workers once in a while. In the virtual world the actual work is information handling.


In an article about trust and the virtual organisation, Charles Handy reflects on some ideas about the virtual library and the virtual office. He refers to discussion with librarians about the future of libraries and says: „Libraries, whose lifeblood is information, were always likely to be among the first to confront the challenge and opportunity of virtuality, but as businesses become ever more dependent on information, they come up against the same dilemmas. An office is, at heart, an interpretative library geared to a particular purpose, and more and more of our economic activity is a churning of information, ideas, and intelligence in all their infinite variety – an invitation to virtuality.“(5) This churning of information might well be the future of research librarians, who should be among the pioneers to make well organised use of the information technology. Churning has three related meanings according to Webster?s New Collegiate Dictionary. Churn is the granular appearance of cream as it is churned. To churn is 1. to agitate (milk or cream) in a churn in order to make butter 2a: to stir or agitate violently b: to make (as foam) by so doing. 3: to make (the account of a client) excessively active by frequent purchases and sales primarily in order to generate commissions.(6)


There will be a demand for skills in organising and making the utmost use of information in every field of life, especially in competitive businesses. The same will be the case for the organisation of the virtual library. There is a need for the organisation of information in the virtual world and the research librarians have the know-how to handle and organise it for the virtual libraries and the virtual offices. We are the professionals who have a formal training in information management and we can put that to use in the virtual world as well as in the real world.


The virtual library will make the traditional library less needed in some fields of science as new sources of multimedia material become available. This is predicted and already happening in the field of medical libraries. In an article about the impact of curriculum revision on media collection in the medical library, Zana C. Etter brings forth the vision that the Media Library of today will not exist in the future. Many textbooks in print will be replaced by electronic versions available on laser disc or via a network and students will carry pocket sized digital books. She is convinced that the information specialist of the future must begin now to acquire or polish technical skills relative to computer systems, local area networks, and electronic transfer of information; they must network services and be willing to share access to materials; and they should become more involved in training and teaching about electronic information environments. She puts forward the idea of visualising the printed collection of today as electronic information and tells us to think about how the library will look, what will be needed and what we can do without. (7)


Although this will be the case for some types of information centres, there is a consensus that the book will sustain as a medium. The brain seems to process text on a computer screen differently from a printed copy and for the foreseeable future, certain types of information will be most easily accessed in the printed form. Microsoft has carried out research on this matter and in their guidelines for authoring Windows Help Systems the following recommendations are given on text design:


    Use short paragraphs. Online users become overloaded with text more easily than readers of printed material.


    Use a minimum of text. Reading speed for online text decreases by 30 percent compared to printed text.


    Use white space to isolate information visually… Users tend to think there is more information on a screen than actually exists. For example, if the ratio of white space to text is 50:50, users perceive it to be 40:60.


There are traditional means to handle printed matter and professionals will still be needed to make the printed information as accessible as possible. Librarians have that know-how and it should not be forgotten while we embark on the road towards handling technological changes. If our profession does not take care of the printed material, a new profession will materialise as the need arises and it would be sad to lose this part of the library profession. In other words, I do think that although we are information specialists, we should not thoughtlessly throw away the library part of our profession.


Longevity of information 

Information in printed form is available to us without the intermediary of machines, but information only available in computer readable format can not be accessed if it is not constantly upgraded to the standards currently available. Jeff Rothenberg addresses this problem in the article Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents.(8) He describes how our grandchildren will see the CD-ROM disc of today and their difficulties in accessing information from it. He writes that „if digital documents and their programs are to be saved, their migration must not modify their bit streams, because programs and their files can be corrupted by the slightest change. If such changes are unavoidable, they must be reversible without loss“. There have already been close calls of lost information. The 1960 U.S. Census data was almost lost, because of obsolete storage medium. This and other similar incidents have raised a concern about the new media. How will we hold on to information available in one system as new technology with new systems develops?


Which profession will take care of the problem of storing the data securely for generations to come? It could be historians, computer scientists or the library managers. Actually the skills of all these professions will be needed. This is not a rewarding task in the short term, but it is a part of information management that is very important.


Education of future librarians and information professionals 

In the year 2000 and beyond we need to take a stand. We have a responsibility towards our customers, to each other and to the people that are now planning to enter the field of librarianship and information science. The generation of librarians now working in the field and in managerial positions did not have much formal education in computer science and management, but many have been able to use the skills of organising and making use of information to adjust and make use of technological changes.


In the future I believe there will be more specialities in librarianship and information science, and a need for professionals in these specialities will be increasing as has been the case in other fields of knowledge. As we continue to work with researchers, we need to use our skills to analyse further the processes underlying our services. Many manual processes have become obsolete through technological changes and that has left us with more freedom as well as challenges for developing our skills further to strengthen our specialities. Future librarians need to develop skills in such diverse fields as management, public relations, organising of information and informative material, computer science, database management, records management, personnel management, and security of information.


There are questions to be answered such as should a librarian manage the large research library or should a management specialist be handling that part? What do the librarians need to study in computer science and what should be left to the computer scientists? To address these problems we should use our skills in working with researchers in different fields. We should also work in concert with specialists in computer science and management, to benefit from what these fields have to offer and to gain better results for our clients.


Young people entering the field, the future librarians and information scientists, have more possibilities than ever before to find interesting jobs. Information scientists are called for in many organisations, not only to organise the printed information but also to organise the electronically stored information. It has become quite common for the Special Library and Information Centre to handle the managerial information of the organisation, such as correspondence and personnel files along with case files of projects and research. This is the field of Records Management that is becoming one of the fields offered in Library Schools.


The curriculum in librarianship is changing slowly. It is in the nature of organisational change that it is slower than technological change. Traditional schools of librarianship have in recent years added the word information science to the title of their programme. Some have even dropped the librarianship part. In some cases librarianship has been merged with other disciplines, for example with Journalism in Oslo and with Computer Sciences in the School of Information Management and Systems, University of California at Berkeley. Other library schools branch out, such as Rosary College Graduate School of Library and Information Science in US which offers two different master?s programmes Master of Library and Information Science and Master of Science in Management Information Systems. The curriculum at the University of Iceland was recently reorganised and a minor as well as specialisation in records management studies is offered to students in Library and Information Science.


Information power 

As information becomes more tangibly a valuable resource, questions have risen concerning billing of library and information services. This is a sensitive issue especially for libraries that tax payers pay for. In the research library field many professionals feel that their work is given more value and prestige by putting a price on information services rendered. Some already sell information either on an interdepartmental billing basis or as information brokers. An example of an Information Centre run for profit is the Business Centre at the Electricity Association in London. It provides information services and analyses to utilities world-wide as well as to the members of its parent organisation.


The connection between information and power is currently much discussed by librarians on both sides of the Atlantic. The theme of the Special Libraries Association yearly conference in Montreal this Summer was The Power of Information Transforming the World and the main theme of the I&D conference held this Autumn in Oslo was Information Power (Informasjon og makt). It is generally agreed that this power should be available to everyone in the interest of democracy. Although more information is available to more people than ever before, it is not available to the general population in the industrialised world and not yet available to but a few in the developing world. This problem is addressed by Bill Washburn in Internet World, where he refers to a poll by Time magazine and CNN in which 85 percent of the population believe the Internet is good for the U.S. economy. Yet 57 percent of the people asked did not understand the Internet. He thinks that „this incoherence demonstrates the nature of the mass media when it focuses on something new: There is a lot of talk, but without much depth or explanation.“(9) Librarians are the professionals that can be intermediaries for the public in access to the information power.

Kristín Geirsdóttir



  1. The New Encyclopædia Britannica. Chicago, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 1990. 29 v.
  2.  Johnston, Stuart J: Gates unplugged. In: Computerworld 29 (42): 28-29 (October 16. 1995). 
  3. Maes, Pattie: Intelligent Software. In: Scientific American 273 (3):66-68 (September 1995). 
  4. Laurel, Brenda: Commentary. Virtual reality. In: Scientific American 273 (3):70 (September 1995). 
  5. Handy, Charles: Trust and the virtual organization. In: Harvard Business Review 73 (3):40-50 (May-June 1995). 
  6. Webster?s new collegiate dictionary, Springfield,. G. & C. Merriam Company, 1977, 1536. 
  7. Etter, Zana C.: Impact of Curriculum Revision on Media Collection. In: Special Libraries 86 (2):83-89, (Spring 1995). 
  8. Rothenberg, Jeff: Ensuring the Longevity of Digital Documents. In: Scientific American 272 (1):24-29, (January 1995). 
  9. Washburn, Bill: The Invisible Revolution. In: Internet World 6 (11): 37-38 (November 1995).