*** NOTICE ***


The ERIC Clearinghouse on Information & Technology
web site is no longer in operation.


The United States Department of Education continues to offer the


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All ERIC Clearinghouses plus AskERIC will be closed permanently as of December 31, 2003.


In January 2004, the Department of Education will implement a reengineering plan for ERIC. The new ERIC mission continues the core function of providing a centralized bibliographic database of journal articles and other published and unpublished education materials. It enhances the database by adding free full text and electronic links to commercial sources and by making it easy to use and up to date.


From January 2004 until the new ERIC model for acquiring education literature is developed later in 2004, no new materials will be received and accepted for the database. However, the ERIC database will continue to grow, as thousands of documents selected by the ERIC clearinghouses throughout 2003 will be added. When the new model is ready later in 2004, the new ERIC contractor will communicate with publishers, education organizations, and other database contributors to add publications and materials released from January 2004 forward.


Please use:

www.eric.ed.gov to


§         Search the ERIC database.

§         Search the ERIC Calendar of Education-Related Conferences.

§         Link to the ERIC Document Reproduction Service (EDRS) to purchase ERIC full-text documents.

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§         Stay up-to-date about the ERIC transition to a new contractor and model.

Archived version of the site:

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The Evolving Library

Words and knowledge change with time. The ability to access written words changed with the invention of the printing press. Written knowledge eventually moved from cathedrals, synagogues, and temples to the public marketplace.

During Chaucer's time, a librarye was a place that contained books. The concept and actuality of a public library evolved slowly through the centuries. The meaning of library changed with the help of new and different technologies. As people invented new technologies, those technologies enabled new changes to occur. Changes in economic and political philosophies also emerged as people began to read and consider their economic and political roles. Essentially, people invent, then live in anticipation of their invention; they change and then reinvent the previous technology and philosophy as new knowledge evolves or erupts in brilliant flashes.

The evolving meaning and purpose of a public library has been the topic of endless discussions. By 1983, librarian Lowell Martin wrote an article titled "Public Libraries—Old Age or Mid Life Crisis." In the article he discussed the challenges libraries face and asked the often-repeated question: If public libraries did not exist, would people go about creating them today? Or could we afford or would we want to pay for it? The current questions that parallel Martin's queries are whether the Internet, the e-book, palm book, Amazon.com, and associated technologies coupled with modern bookstores have made the public library obsolete. What does the public get for its money?

Other points to consider include the following:

  • How does the general public benefit from an institution that is statistically used more by the middle and upper classes?
  • How can one measure the individual effect and changed social effect on a life-long user of a public library?
  • How do public library users differ from non-users, regardless of the democracy and civility raison d'être?
  • Do public library users behave more rationally and with greater enlightenment and tolerance?

Libraries and Human Behavior

Understanding human behavior is essential to assessing the future of public libraries. People think and use public libraries in a non-linear fashion. People like to be entertained and they desire visible and easy access to whatever product they wish to use. A visible, accessible library structure that is clean, well maintained, inviting, and presents environmental harmony inside and out, is a physical example of how public tax dollars are spent. If the library is fun to use and the knowledge is easily accessible, the customer may return to use it again.

People basically want to know more about how to make their individual lives more meaningful beyond mere survival. Content and packaging do matter. Libraries collect, organize, and package their knowledge-based products for people to use based on perceived needs and what is currently being marketed. Libraries also serve as an archive and memory bank for society.

Libraries and Technology

Technology is a tool that can help library customers. The Internet is one technology that is transforming the business of libraries. Is the Internet really an updated version of the ancient marketplace where people connect and converse about everything and anything? Is the Internet the new marketplace for the exchange of ideas and information? Interestingly, the Internet is not packaged in a holistic fashion like a library. There is no strategic plan tied to it. People have freedom to explore, in the sense that they are not channeled into one section such as children's services, at least for now. This freedom, may frighten some people who want control. On the Internet you can indulge your curiosity, enter a discussion, research a topic, compare a vision, learn and create, or cruise. But there is a fear associated with it—the fear of a loss of control. People may become distracted with questions like:

  • How will we know what is junk on the Internet and what is worth believing?
  • How will we keep our children safe?

    • What are the new emerging criteria for what constitutes information? These questions express a longing for someone to take charge of our knowledge. We seem to want experts just as we want "filters." But private corporations design filters. Public libraries are public entities. Can a private corporation establish policy about access for a public entity?

Libraries and Software Design

There is another issue within the high-tech industry itself—software design. Many library customers do not like library software. It seems that engineers are in charge. Engineers may seem to have the right angle on a particular detail but may not see the whole non-linear picture. They may not know how frustrating and difficult it is for the average person to learn their programs, and how degraded some customers in a public library feel when they try to learn how to use the results of an engineer's design—the public catalog. A key in the future will probably be in interface design; people who design software for libraries need training on how software behaves in a public library environment. Designers need to develop what the software does and how it behaves, communicates, and informs. Designers need to consider the users' perspectives even more than it is commonly considered in today's information marketplace.

Librarians of the Future

Are public libraries evolving as marketplaces for the exchange of ideas, places of conversation, and "socially enhanced global book and byte retreats" to discuss new forms of knowledge while librarians move toward providing content and information navigation? The answer is yes. "Librarians" work at national chain bookstores to help customers with information navigation. And in the typical public library, the demand for easy, fast, and accessible information needs to be the goal of customer-friendly interactive technology.

Books will continue to serve as a tool and format for information, pleasure reading, and conversations through book clubs, author series, reading forums, and literary coffeehouses, among others. Public libraries in the digital age will create, publish, and manipulate information. This vision transforms libraries from collectors and disseminators to actual information creators.

Library Administration and Privacy Issues

The new public library may in fact be administered collectively by a variety of information-related personnel. Boards of trustees or directors as we know them may become passe within the next few decades. Boards may be transformed into advisory consultants from political lobbyists to technology experts.

Privacy is another major challenge facing public libraries in the digital age. Privacy is disappearing, but not in a way we expected. Privacy will not vanish completely. However, privacy is becoming less a right and steadily more a scarce commodity that we buy and sell at a price. For example, if you want to buy something and you want to be sure that transaction is private and confidential, you use cash. But there's a price you pay. Carrying cash may be inconvenient or risky; and membership in any organization eats away at privacy—whether at the public library, a civic organization, or where you do your banking.

Libraries and Learning

Finally, during the past decade we have witnessed a change in the medieval educational posture. Students—whether traditional learners or life-long learners—are no longer empty vessels waiting to be filled. The public's library is at just such a crossroads and will need to breathe life into itself as a 21st century incubator of knowledge. The public library is no longer an aspect of the production line of education. Rather it is the public's navigational tool in the marketplace of knowledge.

But where will we be in ten years and where will library services be? Thomas Aquinas once observed after years of spiritual and personal struggle that "We think we know, but have yet to discover."


  • Martin, L. A. (1983). The public library: Middle-age crisis or old age? Library Journal; 108(1), p17-22. (EJ274739)

Biographical information

Lawrence J. Frank is executive director of the Onondaga County Public Library, Syracuse, New York. He has served as director of school district, county district, and county libraries for more than 19 years in Ohio, Kentucky, Michigan, and New York

Frank earned a M.L.S. degree at the University of Michigan, and B.A. and M.A. degrees at Western Michigan University. His post graduate work was at University of Wisconsin and Miami University. Frank also published a book of poetry titled Silence; and has published articles in various trade and academic publications.

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