Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Books & Libraries Remain Relevant in a Digital Revolution

Increasingly, we live and work in a society based on knowledge.  The ability to access and use information strategically is crucial to achieving success in the 21st century.  Historically, books served as the printed source of knowledge, libraries provided public access to the content, and literacy reflected success.  Today, however, it appears that the knowledge source is boundless.  It exists beyond the traditional walls of libraries, and the measure of literacy is subjective to one’s intake of bits and bites.  The dam has broken on the spiraling outpour of information, and it makes us all the thirstier.

The ease of access to digital information puts pressure on public libraries to maintain buoyancy as the Internet floodwaters rise.   The pressure to be relevant may be even greater on libraries within institutions of higher learning, as the current generation, of young learners, demands instant gratification for its thirst for information and entertainment.    

Today, bibliographies include lists of formally published books as well as sources with the World Wide Web prefix.  Reading for pleasure can mean settling into a club chair at a library holding a copy of a classic Pulitzer Prize-winning author’s work, or sipping java at a local coffee shop and flipping the pages of a digital novel with a computer mouse or stylus.  Neither form of reading diminishes the knowledge or pleasure gained.  Both are necessary for the society based on knowledge.

This understanding compelled the University of Texas to harness the capacities of the digital revolution, as a means of keeping books and their content relevant and accessible to the community at large.  

As a result, libraries as the access to knowledge are changing.  Now, the knowledge gateway is digital, and the University calls it Utopia (  UTopia provides for everyone a personalized window into the intellectual resources of UT’s libraries, collections, museums and much more.  A UT agreement with the Texas A&M Libraries, the University of Houston Libraries, Texas Tech University Libraries and Rice University Libraries will establish the Texas Digital Library.  The Texas Digital Library will become a modern venue for the assembly and delivery of information that will benefit a variety of communities, including K-12 students and their parents, university researchers and the corporations doing business within the state and interacting with its institutions of higher education.

The formal library spaces also are changing.  The University’s Flawn Academic Center, which contained the Undergraduate Library, now serves as an expanded learning commons, providing an array of coordinated information resources and instructional services.  The collections in the Undergraduate Library (some 90,000 volumes) now reside with the University’s eight million volumes in other libraries across campus.  The University of Texas Libraries collaborates with other divisions on campus to foster information literacy and creativity, in a commitment to assemble one of the world’s preeminent repositories of the human record, and in recognition that in the 21st  century we cannot ignore those vast portions of the record that are now captured in formats other than print.

We are astride two worlds right now.  The pervasiveness of the Internet, along with the popularity of audio books, sometimes evokes dire predictions about the future of the book.  Yet, not everything is available on the Internet, and in Texas, the love for books does not appear to be diminishing.    
This weekend (Oct. 29-30, 2005) we celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Texas Book Festival.  Nearly half a million people have gathered in and around the Texas Capitol, over the past nine years, to celebrate authors and their contributions to the culture of literacy, ideas and imagination.  The event has quickly evolved into one of the premier literary events in the Southwest and one of the top three book festivals in the country.

The printed book clearly remains at the center of the spiraling information universe.    Last year, the University of Texas Libraries spent just over $9.5 million to purchase books.  The Texas Book Festival in 2004 exceeded the $1.65 million mark in total grants it has awarded to Texas public libraries.  Libraries and books remain faithfully linked.

One can hardly make the case that electronic resources have supplanted the book as the cornerstone of public education.  Our libraries may look and function differently than they did just a decade ago, but they will not only continue to exist, but to flourish.   And knowledge—in all its myriad forms—will continue to be our pursuit.