Many people seem to believe that conventional libraries provide their current services in a way that meets the needs of ordinary users, that digital libraries should focus on new types of services, and that digital libraries are actually a threat to the traditional users of public libraries. This essay argues that all of these beliefs are false, and that digital libraries will actually make it possible to offer quality library services for the first time to much of the world's population.


It seems to be a widely held belief in academic circles that the problem of providing conventional library services is solved, that there is no point to thinking simply about electronic delivery of the same services that libraries provide physically now, and that "digital library" work should focus on using new technologies to solve unsolved problems such as facilitating collaboration and automating information locating [UMDL]. Another common belief is that these new technologies, by changing the way in which materials are presented and used, will make conventional materials less accessible to many, if not most, people leaving knowledge in the possession of a technological elite (see, for example, [Harris]).

These views are not surprising. Academics do, after all, work in environments in which traditional library services are at their best, and academics at large research universities get the best of the best. These beliefs are, however, false. For many (perhaps most) people traditional libraries cannot provide quality service, and while the changes that electronic access will produce will be awkward for some the results will ultimately be for the benefit of us all. This essay attempts to justify these claims. We begin with a parable, and then focus on two communities that are currently largely unserved by the present library system.

A Parable

The following was not written by a German abbott in the late fifteenth century, but it might have been (see, for example, [Trith]):

This Gutenberg is going to destroy the book as we know it. His movable type forces a standardization in the way books are presented which will make them impossible to read. The beauty and creativity of our illuminated manuscripts will be lost forever; soon no one will be capable of making them. Books will be so cheap that anything can be printed and distributed by anyone. People will be printing works by modern authors, not just the Bible and the ancients, and everyone will have the opportunity to read them. It will be impossible to find works of value in all the trash.

He was (or would have been) right, of course. Printing helped change the medieval world far more thoroughly than he could begin to imagine, and at some cost. Books today cannot approach the aesthetic standards of the illuminated manuscripts of the Middle Ages, and much of what is printed today is of little value (although people seldom agree on which books are valuable). Most of us would agree, however, that on the whole the world is a better place because Gutenberg was here. Most of the benefit has come from providing access to information to a larger and larger circle of people. Will electronic libraries do the same?

Geography and Wealth

I grew up in the suburbs of a large American city. When I was in junior high, going to the public library meant spending an hour each way on the bus (and changing twice) to travel downtown to where the library was. Before then it was something I didn't do at all. Going to the library was something one didn't do lightly; most people I knew didn't do it at all.

The San Luis valley in southern Colorado is an eight county region roughly the size of Delaware and has a population of about 25,000. Most of the population is concentrated around the city of Alamosa; half of the population lives in Alamosa county at the southern end of the valley while Saguaches county to the north has a population of 4,619 in an area of 3168 square miles [Census]. The valley is arid and has no industry and no tax base. A resident of Saguaches county interested in the work of Noam Chomsky has a problem.

This is a picture that my children wouldn't understand. They live in a community where the library is a twenty minute walk and, because the community is wealthy, the library is a comparatively good one. It is also largely irrelevant to their lives; if they want to read a book they go to a bookstore and buy it. It is a community like the one most academics, both students and faculty, come from and live in and it is easy to forget that it is not how most of the world lives.

For much of the world's population the idea of a local public library is as out of reach as a plane ticket to the moon; in many third world countries a national library of any quality is a dream.

What is widely available in Saguaches county, and at least within some reasonable distance in much of the world, is a telephone. The idea that traditional, non-innovative library services might be available by telephone offers an opportunity to make knowledge available to vast numbers of people who have no other hope.

Another essay in this collection [Hardy] explores how cheaply a system for providing library services on line could be. The equipment for using these services could be even cheaper; much of the cost of Hardy's system arises from the cost of managing large amounts of material. The equipment for subscribing to such a library could cost about as much as a television.

Even in areas where telephone access is problematic, electronic technologies offer opportunities. One of the oldest efforts to use electronic technology to make knowledge more widely available, Project Gutenberg [Hart] has a goal of making ten thousand "important" but public domain texts universally available by the year 2000. Although Project Gutenberg texts are available on the Internet the primary distribution mechanism remains floppy disks; a single thirty cent diskette can hold a work that would cost several dollars to produce on paper.

The materials that would be distributed by this sort of library would not meet the needs of serious scholars, and people to whom geography and wealth give more direct access might still prefer "real books." To minimize the cost of equipment for users these libraries might, for example, use only plain text and have no illustrations. Like early printed books, however, they might make knowledge available to many people who had no access before. Just as printing ultimately made things that could never have been possible in manuscripts, such as half tone photographs, possible electronic technologies, while the may cast us the "feel and smell" of books, will allow other things that would never have been possible before.

Access for the Handicapped

For many people, access to libraries is limited by physical handicaps. For some the issue is mobility; if I can't leave my home then I can't get to the library. For these people the issue is one of geography; their geography is simply more constrained.

For others particular physical handicaps make traditional library themselves difficult to use, even if they are close at ahnd. Most library materials are visual, because in our civilization most knowledge is transmitted visually. This causes obvious difficulty for the blind or visually limited. Other problems are not so obvious. People with limited motor skills or reduced hand strength often find lifting a book or turning pages difficult, for example.

In conversations with librarians I have found many who view the increasing use of computer technology as increasing this burden, On the surgace this is indeed a concern: Keyboareds are difficult for people with motor handicaps and display screens are not usable by the blind. But books are not usable by the blind either. The historian Norman Coombs, who is blind, has written:

Computer retrieval of information can enhance library efforts to increase equal access for persons with physical disabilities. With appropriate hardware and software, patrons with visual limitations can be provided with the means to use libraries as never before. This same technology may also assist people with some forms of dyslexia for whom reading the printed page is a difficulty. Others who have motor problems that prevent their using a traditional book may be able to use other computer adaptive devices to access library facilities. Congress has recently taken an interest in encouraging public institutions to provide more equal access to computers and electronic information, and future federal funding may become tied to its provision.[Coombs]

Rubinsky [Rubinsky] discusses the ability or computers to transform electronic texts in ways that make them more accessible to persons with handicaps. Some of these are obvious: computers can enlarge print and change colors to help people with limited vision. They can also read text aloud, allowing a blind user a wider choice and greater spontaneity in choosing materials then is available on prerecorded tapes. In the European Community the CAPS (Communication and Access to information for People with Special needs) program has already made daily newspapers in Sweden and the United Kingdom available electronically to handicapped individuals on a trial basis [Wesley]

The mouse/keyboard interface common today causes obvious difficulties for people with limited use of their hands. The computers that allow the physicist Stephen Hawking, who is almost completely immobilized, to read, work and speak should make it clear that computers are actually an enabling technology for many people who find lifting a book and turning pages a significant barrier. While computers that respond to voice commands are still expensive and limited in their abilities more mundane aids, such as keyboards that resist hitting multiple keys or software that allow multiple key presses to be done one at a time are readily available at little or no cost [IBM].

The needs of the handicapped are not the same as those of the scholar. Transformations such as automatic reading or enlarging of print destroy details which are important to scholars and are, in fact, simpler if documents are stored as plain text in which many of these details are lost. Meeting the needs of the handicapped does not require schemes which preserve scholarly accuracy, nor does it require the elaborate schemes for searching an collaboration that are the focus of much current research. It requires only the delivery of traditional library services electronically. The problems are of willingness, not uninvented technologically.


Many people have expressed the fear that digital libraries are part of a trend that will create an "electronic elite" who will have opportunities that those outside the elite do not. This risk is real, but it is the same as the "risk" in the fifteenth century that printing, by making the written word important in day to day life in a way that it never was before, would create an elite of those who could read. Which it did.

Like printing, digital libraries also offer possibilities for expanding access to knowledge to people whose access to traditional libraries is limited by geography, economics or handicaps. Because it offers access independent of geography, it also offers hope for those who, because of budget reductions or censorship, are seeing their current access shrink rather than broaden. With print, creating an elite was avoided by teaching people to read. There is a message in this for those who are listening: the way to avoid creating an electronic elite is the same.