Renewing the Library in the Internet Era

By Charles Buchanan

Library Shelves

In the age of Google and Wikipedia, libraries might seem a little old school. How can a building full of books stack up against the wealth of information that resides just a point and click away?

But T. Scott Plutchak doesn’t believe the library is an endangered species. In fact, “this is the best time to be a librarian in 500 years,” says the director of UAB’s Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences. “Increasingly, our role is to help people navigate the information space quickly and efficiently,” and the digital world brings new opportunities to “connect people with the recorded information they need to solve problems, improve their lives, or be entertained.”

Here, Plutchak and Jerry Stephens, Ph.D., director of UAB’s Mervyn Sterne Library, describe five key ways in which the digital revolution has made libraries more accessible, personal, and relevant than ever


1. The Web offers choices and challenges.

Scott  Plutchak
Scott Plutchak
Jerry  Stephens
Jerry Stephens

Together, UAB’s Sterne and Lister Hill libraries hold more than a million items, from books and journals to CDs and videos. But the Internet and e-books are quickly expanding those collections.
Sterne was among the first libraries in Alabama to begin replacing some reference books with a computer database. Today, Stephens says, Sterne can digitally deliver full text, images, and audio to desktops or laptops—and video is in the works. The library also counts approximately 60,000 e-books in its collection.
At Lister Hill, the state’s largest biomedical library, “we collect almost nothing in print now,” Plutchak says—including academic journals. Digital versions of those periodicals enable easy access, but they also present a challenge. “We have to protect the archival sense of the resource,” Stephens says. “E-versions began as a supplement to the printed journals; now we can purchase an electronic subscription and then buy the print as a supplement.” That ensures that past issues are readily available, but it also increases the cost of doing business—forcing libraries to choose carefully. “Getting a better idea of exactly what people need, how they use materials, and how we can best spend our limited resources is a very high priority for us,” Plutchak says.

2. The library wants to be your friend

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