In the coming digital, online world, the public libraries will: (a) languish as outdated, expensive artifacts of an earlier age, or (b) adapt and thrive as key resources on the Internet and as public on-ramps to the Information Superhighway.

If you answered (b), you're in good company. Encouraged by everyone from Al Gore to Newt Gingrich, library administrators across the U.S. are determined to carve out a key role for their institutions in the digital age. In addition to ferrying local citizens into cyberspace, librarians are counting on technology to extend their patronage beyond the immediate neighborhood: Working closely with technology companies, they are digitizing collections for delivery over the Internet to local, national, and even global audiences.

The passage is hardly proving effortless. It's not clear, for instance, what level of I-way service libraries will be able to afford or be allowed to give away--channels of interactive video programming, or just text-only Internet service, for instance? Also, even if billions of taxpayer dollars were available to get all 15,872 of the nation's public libraries and branches online--which there aren't--legal issues still must be considered. Stocking reference works and lending books is one thing. Dispensing digital copies raises uncharted copyright issues. "We're moving from a situation where libraries own books to one where all they do is lease the use of information," says Karen Coyle, a technical specialist in library automation at the University of California. "It's an entirely different legal basis for the existence of libraries." One possible solution: librarians are lobbying for copyright laws that permit limited copying by the public of electronic materials.

Some libraries are wasting no time getting wired. Patrons visiting any of the San Francisco Public Library's 30-odd branches can now surf the Internet from public terminals. By next year, libraries in the Bay Area will gain Internet access to the city library's Digital Equipment Corp. Alpha-based server, which will dish out items from a growing multimedia archive. First to go online will be a collection of some 400,000 pieces of sheet music, available locally and eventually across the entire Internet, says librarian Kenneth E. Dowlin. That will open the archive to millions, yet preserve the aging originals.

BUDGET SQUEEZE. The San Francisco project gets a big boost from Silicon Valley, an hour's drive to the south. Technology companies, together with 16,000 San Franciscans, have contributed $30 million to a city-library foundation. That's helping Dowlin, who's known in library circles for his 1984 book, The Electronic Library, to fund development of library technology. One project is aimed at creating an electronic card catalog that indexes both the library's own materials and material on the Internet.

Many, perhaps most, of the nation's public libraries, though, can only dream of a digital future. The tremendous pressure on municipal and county budgets, which on average provide 79% of a community library's funds, makes it difficult for many of them to simply stay open. Washington contributes only 57 cents per citizen for library spending. And this year, the Commerce Dept.'s National Telecommunications & Information Administration grants, used by several libraries to fund technology projects, have been slashed from $64 million to $34 million.

There's some sentiment in Congress to encourage electronic libraries, but no money. One amendment to the Senate's currently pending telecommunications-deregulation bill, for example, calls for all libraries to get "affordable" access rates to communications networks. "We hear lots of good words about the library as a self-help institution and how it empowers people," says Carol C. Henderson, chief lobbyist at the American Library Assn. (ALA). "But the drive for a balanced budget and tax cuts puts an enormous squeeze on social spending."

FRIENDLY GIANTS. For a few lucky libraries, one answer to the funding problem is private industry. Makers of computers and communications gear are using libraries to hone their skills in digitizing, organizing, and distributing electronic information--and tracking who should pay what. IBM, for instance, is donating PCs to the New York Public Library's new science, industry, and business wing. Meanwhile, the company has just launched a set of products and services to help private companies and public institutions create large-scale "digital libraries." Customers have "only digitized 10% of all the information that's out there," says Steve Mills, general manager of IBM's Software Solutions Div.

Many telecommunications companies are leaping at the chance to donate funds, equipment, and services to public libraries. It's good public relations, and it could help preempt mandates that would call for subsidies to connect libraries, schools, and poor people to the I-way. MCI Communications Corp., for instance, has a program called LibraryLink that will give libraries in eight cities $500,000 in PC equipment and staff training (table).

Meanwhile, the ALA and Libraries for the Future, a library users' advocacy group, are lobbying local, state, and federal governments. The ALA has its eye on a huge prize: It wants a share of the estimated $5 billion that the Federal Communications Commission is raising by auctioning radio-frequency licenses and a chunk of the $300 million a year in excess funds that local phone companies collect for connecting long-distance calls. "We want to share in not more taxes but in the profits generated by the Info Highway," says Betty J. Turock, president-elect of the ALA. And if the money comes through, libraries will surely be some of the most important destinations on that I-way.

Hi-Tech Companies Pitch In


Lobbying the Federal Communications Commission to redirect $2 billion over six years to libraries and schools.


Provided Internet links to 32 libraries in Morris County, N.J.


Offering $5.5 million in credits to libraries and schools.


Will donate $500,000 over three years to help libraries in eight cities buy gear and train staff.


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