Book It: Libraries Of the Future Could Look High Tech

With the explosion of the internet and the on-going digitization of millions of books, the days of traditional bricks and mortar libraries, lined with stacks of dusty old volumes and a few tables and chairs, may be numbered. As Houston Public Radio's Jack Williams reports, some of the world's top librarians are in Houston this week to discuss how libraries will look in the future.

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It's a challenge that's daunting by any measure, how to create structure and coherence around millions of books and bits of information in a digital age. Google and Microsoft are currently involved in massive digital library projects that are changing the way librarians are planning for the future. Chuck Henry is vice provost and Rice University librarian and is co-chair of the De Lange Conference this week at Rice.

"What we're seeing is a major shift from the idea of the library as a physical building that contains books that can be searched by hand to a library that is extremely diffuse, that is increasingly digital and available from about any place that you can connect your computer to."

With more than 300 billion websites worldwide, experts say more information has been produced in the past few years than in the entire previous history of humanity. Henry says the challenge is to organize that information so it can be useful.

"I think we have to manage this. We have to evolve this process in a thoughtful way in order for that information one to be accessible and two to be able to be used in a thoughtful and productive way."

Lynne Brindley is the chief executive of the British Library, the UK's national library that contains 150 million items. She says the future for her is a mix between the digital age and actual historic books that will stay where they are.

"For me, the challenge is exposing all of that and if it's not digital, people don't look for it or don't find it anymore. So this is a challenge for computer scientists, for library professionals and for information scientists. So we have plenty of work to do."

So will traditional libraries go the way of dinosaurs? No says Stanford University librarian Michael Keller, who believes future libraries will be a combination of things.

"The best view of a library I think is one that incorporates a spectrum of objects, virtual and physical, that carry information and somehow we have to dissociate the traditional idea of the library being a building or just a collection of books and now imagine it as a collection of ideas and expressions that are conveyed in various ways."

Keller says he expects libraries to continue to be places for social interaction, regardless of whether the books and information are accessed digitally or in more traditional ways. The De Lange Conference continues through Wednesday.

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