eBooks: 1995 – Libraries launched websites

by Marie Lebert on July 11, 2011

eBooks: 1995 - Libraries launched websites

In the mid-1990s, libraries started their own websites as a virtual window for their patrons and beyond, with an online catalog and a digital library.

In his book “Books in My Life”, published by the Library of Congress in 1985, Robert Downs, a librarian, wrote: “My lifelong love affair with books and reading continues unaffected by automation, computers, and all other forms of the twentieth-century gadgetry.”

Automation and computers were followed by the internet (1974) and the web (1990), and eased the work of librarians in some way.

The Helsinki City Library in Finland was the first library to launch a website, which went live in February 1994. Other libraries started their own websites as a virtual window for their patrons and beyond. Patrons could check opening hours, browse the online catalog, and surf on a broad selection of websites on various topics.

Libraries also developed digital libraries alongside their standard collections, so that anyone could access their specialized, old, local and regional collections, including for images and sound. Librarians could finally fulfill two goals that used to be in contradiction: preservation (on shelves) and communication (on the internet). People could now leaf through digital facsimiles, and access the original books only if necessary.

At the British Library

In “Information Systems Strategy”, a document posted on the British Library’s website in 1997, Brian Lang, chief executive of the library, stated: “We do not envisage an exclusively digital library. We are aware that some people feel that digital materials will predominate in libraries of the future. Others anticipate that the impact will be slight. In the context of the British Library, printed books, manuscripts, maps, music, sound recordings and all the other existing materials in the collection will always retain their central importance, and we are committed to continuing to provide, and to improve, access to these in our reading rooms. The importance of digital materials will, however, increase. We recognize that network infrastructure is at present most strongly developed in the higher education sector, but there are signs that similar facilities will also be available elsewhere, particularly in the industrial and commercial sector, and for public libraries. Our vision of network access encompasses all these.”

An extensive Digital Library Program was expected to begin in 1999. As explained by Brian Lang: “The development of the Digital Library will enable the British Library to embrace the digital information age. Digital technology will be used to preserve and extend the Library’s unparalleled collection. Access to the collection will become boundless with users from all over the world, at any time, having simple, fast access to digitized materials using computer networks, particularly the internet.”

Print book vs. digital book

Debates were fierce about the assets of the print book versus the digital book, and vice versa.

Roberto Hernández Montoya, an editor of Venezuela Analítica, an electronic magazine offering a small digital library, wrote in September 1998: “The printed text can’t be replaced, at least not for the foreseeable future. The paper book is a tremendous ‘machine’. We can’t leaf through an electronic book in the same way as a paper book. On the other hand, electronic use allows us to locate text chains more quickly. In a certain way we can more intensively read the electronic text, even with the inconvenience of reading on the screen. The electronic book is less expensive and can be more easily distributed worldwide (if we don’t count the cost of the computer and the internet connection).” (NEF Interview)

In the February 1996 issue of the Swiss computer magazine “Informatique-Informations”, Pierre Perroud, founder of the digital library Athena, explained that “electronic texts represent an encouragement to reading and a convivial participation to culture dissemination”, particularly for textual research and text study. These texts are “a good complement to the print book, which remains irreplaceable when for ‘true’ reading. (…) The book remains a mysteriously holy companion with profound symbolism for us: we grip it in our hands, we hold it against us, we look at it with admiration; its small size comforts us and its content impresses us; its fragility contains a density we are fascinated by; like man it fears water and fire, but it has the power to shelter man’s thoughts from time.”

Copyright © 2011 Marie Lebert

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