Libraries are not what they used to be, and that's all to their credit. They may look much the same as ever, their spaces filled mostly by shelves packed tight with books. But the bright computer screens that compete with the shelves for space announce a future of endlessly scrollable and infinitely extensive information.
And yet, the millions of books already on the world's library shelves won't go away soon — except to the extent that many will literally crumble of their own accord, under the inexorable laws of chemistry, from an excess of acid in their paper.
Caught, then, between the paper past and the electronic future, libraries are at an exhilarating moment in their history. Their traditional mission is to be discriminating assemblers and preservers of a significant portion of the written human record. They need now to pursue that mission in unsettled circumstances and work out an accommodation between the enduring technology of the book and the enabling technology of the Internet.
Our library system is doing just that. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries (SIL) encompass 19 branches and some 1.2 million volumes. These libraries have existed primarily to serve scholars and researchers, but that is changing. Anyone with access to the Internet can sample the services and resources of SIL (www.sil.si.edu), and the Website will one day be the system's 20th branch.
On the left-hand side of the SIL home page, you'll find a column of entry points into the system. A few clicks will bring you to an on-line version of the libraries' Panama Canal exhibition (currently mounted in the National Museum of American History) or to links to on-line exhibitions created by other libraries and historical societies. Click on the reference desk to access census data, almanacs, biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias. That's a mere sample. The reference resources available are wonderfully rich and varied: you can look up phone numbers, ZIP codes and the rates for currency conversion.
On the right-hand side of the home page there's an antic-looking Ferris wheel of illustrations from volumes in the SIL collections. A ship at sea, a balloon in flight, a nautilus shell, insects, leaves, a vase, a capital on an elaborate column — the images hint at the range of the libraries' riches.
SIL's special collections include some 40,000 rare and valuable volumes and 2,000 groups of manuscripts, the majority dating from the 15th century to the 19th century, and several hundred thousand trade catalogues that document the history of American technology, manufacturing and business. Those latter items, as ephemeral when they were new as the flood of mail-order catalogues we routinely discard today, are invaluable to people writing the nation's social and cultural history, or to designers and filmmakers wanting precise details of some distant period.
Items in the special collections require meticulous care and attention, and storage at the ideal temperature and humidity. The newest technologies may prove especially useful in making these carefully controlled items more accessible, and SIL has begun a program to digitize treasured, rarely seen volumes for mounting on the Web.
Digital scanning is a painstaking and expensive process, but the results are remarkable. Scanned images on the screen have a density of detail that escapes the eye on the printed page. The technology allows magnification that takes the viewer deep into an image — to view, for example, the finest line of the pen in a scientific drawing. Seeing the original image on a page next to the scanned image on a computer screen can be disconcerting, for it's the screen image that seems more vivid and immediate — more real, in fact. The real and the reproduced trade places.
Even with ingenious electronic search procedures that allow the equivalent of browsing and flipping pages, the experience of a book on the screen is different from the experience of a book in your hand. There are trade-offs to the transformation. Some readers will prefer the electronic version, some will not, and many will be indifferent to the change. But the alteration is genuine. Books are not synonymous with their contents. They are objects of human craft, and they stir human attachments. Once transferred to a screen, the frailest page seems safe.
The Smithsonian Libraries' digitization program will grow as we secure the money to scan additional items. With no risk to the precious originals, books will be available universally to individuals who might otherwise never have known of their existence. They will be remade and given a second life, far beyond the limitations of the first.