Adding the image -- with a critical perspective

by William Curran, Director of Libraries

The second of two articles about the future of academic libraries

The shift to a digital environment is coming at a time when many academic disciplines are exploding into interdisciplinary entities -- the best examples are semiotics and environmental studies. As disparate disciplines merge, so will the definition of competency. As curricula change to accommodate the new media, so must the academic libraries' collections that support those disciplines.

Information technology allows the visual, the auditory and the textual to merge into forms that are interactive and manipulative. Libraries can no longer limit themselves to text. If they do, they risk creating information ghettos that will not meet the needs of users in any discipline.

In this century, when art students learn of Monet or Van Dyck, they will see images on their screens while hearing or reading the text of a lecture. Architects will think in three-dimensional terms because technology allows them to visualize their creative endeavours instantly. Musicians will hear the music of Bach and Chopin while reading the score. Documentary films, archival photographs and videos will become an integral component of history courses.

This has a profound impact on the forms of academic library collections, but also on the equipment, the software, the hardware, the platforms, the printing devices and the staff expertise needed to animate the information.

Just as collection development librarians anticipated needs in developing a collection, reference staff now more actively anticipate information needs by creating guidelines, structures and routes (gateways) for users to access information that may (or may not) be in cyberspace. Orientation sessions -- always a crucial pedagogical function in academic libraries -- will become mandatory in our educational institutions.

Existing protocols already enable users to access the collections of many libraries, and, with appropriate links, to query any number of library collections, using the same language and prompt terms used at the home institution.

Reference staff in academic libraries not only provide a variety of services, from the desks to locations where they teach, but they also provide advice and guidance and instruct users. Librarians are full partners in the university's pedagogical mission. Almost every librarian doing reference work is now required to know six or eight interface systems and Internet gateways. But technology remains only a tool that helps realize goals and objectives more effectively.

Many Web-based tutorials have been developed over the past few years, and the number of off-site users continues to grow. Concordia's virtual reference ( is an example of off-site help available to users. This does not mean that the traditional library, as a place for study or browsing through books and journals, will disappear. This is not an either/or situation, any more than TV-watching discourages reading, or surfing the Web makes school boring.

Literacy will be a far different thing in this millennium, and those who work in the information profession have a crucial pedagogical role to play. Those young people sitting in front of the terminal will not get far unless they can read -- one can only do so much clicking before hitting a brick, if virtual, wall -- so they'll have to learn to read and write and hear and think.

Users will also require sets of skills that build on the basic alphanumeric components we called literacy in the 20th century. Access is, and will continue to be, at everyone's disposal, but the content must be taught.

Libraries won't be replaced by Yahoo or Alta Vista any time soon. It is people who have vision, perseverance, commitment to service, communication skills and networking abilities not machines.

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