LIKE MANY MEN of a certain age, I traveled last summer to my hometown, visiting old friends and schools. I was surprised that the first thing I recalled at the half-dozen schools was the exact location of the school library. (Well, that and the principal's office.)
In those days, going to the library meant digging through musty shelves to find a copy of From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. Those memories are as representative of current libraries as slide rules are indicative of today's computers. In the digital age, libraries have evolved from repositories of information into conduits to information.
Stand in front of any of the 42 branches of the King County Library System before it opens and you'll likely see a crowd of patrons jockeying for position as though it were the first day of a Nordstrom sale. When the doors are unlocked, they don't all run to the shelves. Most run to clusters of personal computers containing the library catalog, dozens of subscription databasesand free Internet access.
NATIONALLY, KING COUNTY is considered a leader in incorporating digital technologies into its libraries. It was the first, or among the first, to offer new book alerts via e-mail, technology books that could be read online, and, just this month, movie previews on its Web site (www.kcls.org) that patrons can view and then immediately reserve the related video tape or DVD.
Next month, the library plans to start offering e-books for download from its Web site. Cardholders will be able to select fiction and nonfiction titles, download them to a PC or PDA, and read them for 28 days. The books automatically "check themselves in" when the timed downloads expire. Want an e-book someone else is reading? Place a hold online, and when it's available you'll get an e-mail with a download link. Patrons never have to visit a physical branch.
It'd be easy to credit the halo effect of Microsoft and the local tech sector for this digital deluge. But it appears more a matter of evolution. "KCLS tries not to differentiate between digital and print information," notes Jed Moffitt, associate director of information technology. "Information in all its forms is part of what a library is."
That philosophy is reflected both in library content and infrastructure. Content, in the form of e-books, e-audio (audio books in MP3 format preloaded onto MP3 players), and online subscription databases. Infrastructure in the manner of Internet-enabled PCs, free Wi-Fi wireless Internet access, and self-checkout scanners in many branches.
Digital content accounts for roughly 12 percent of the $10 million KCLS materials budget. Infrastructure, such as the Web site, acts as a conduit for both digital and analog materials. And their popularity is undeniable. Of 15 million items circulated each year, about 25 percent are placed on hold through the KCLS.org site. "More and more people are getting their library materials by using their computer first," observes Moffitt.
PERHAPS IT'S NO surprise that mere flesh-and-blood staff have trouble keeping up. Last month, I visited the Auburn branch to learn more about the free Wi-Fi access introduced earlier this year. "Is this a Wi-Fi enabled branch?" I asked. There was a long pause, a blank look, and the staffer politely informed me, "No, this is a King County Library branch." It took a few more questions and two more staffers to determine that the branch had Wi-Fi (known to nerds as 802.11b), but that the staff just called it "wireless Internet."
The smaller, cash-strapped Seattle Public Library (www.spl.org) has many of the same services but appears a step behind KCLS in implementing them in its 23 libraries and online. Wi-Fi access won't kick in until the new central library opens next spring, for example. But once that facility is open, each book will have a radio frequency ID chip to help check in returns and sort them for shelvingwhich, along with 400 public computers, hints at the tech emphasis in the new showplace.
KCLS's Moffitt sees more growth for digital collections, as long as copyright holders allow it: "We'd really like to make more e-books and audio books available for home download. This is all contingent upon the publishing industry developing new content-licensing models."
To survive the digital age, libraries have embraced e-books, e-audio, and Web sites that bring libraries to home PCs. The paper-warehouse concept is so last century.
Frank Catalano is a tech-industry analyst, consultant and author. He wrote this piece at the Auburn, Kirkland, Bellevue, and Federal Way KCLS branches, and can be reached via www.catalanoconsulting.com.