Good Life

OLLI column | Course follows path of Penn State libraries’ journey into the future

A common myth is that most information is available over the Internet for free, so libraries are increasingly passé. That myth ignores the broad role that libraries play in society. It also ignores that publications (whether paper or digital) are a commodity with commercial value for which the library pays on behalf of its users. And it ignores that libraries welcomed digital technologies and incorporated them successfully into their systems and services.

Library automation evolved starting in the late 1960s, beginning with systems that improved the operations of the libraries, such as circulation, acquisitions and online catalogs. For a short period of time, libraries would load reference databases onto internal computer systems accessed by users on in-house terminals. But as publishers started using digital platforms and networks evolved to link systems, libraries could make content available directly over networks from external providers directly to users online. Thus, libraries entered the networked digital age.

Today, almost any library provides a rich panoply of digital services, including access to online catalogs and reference databases, full text electronic books and journals, reference assistance, instructional tutorials, websites and social media. Consortia such as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation libraries worked with Google and the Internet Archive to digitize massive older collections to make those available online as well. The magnitude of these digitization projects require action to bring collections together from multiple sources, to share in the cost of the digitization and to share in the cost of long-term digital archiving.

As more content becomes available digitally, the nature of research also is affected. The Penn State University Libraries system has several librarians working with the College of Liberal Arts on new modes of the “digital humanities.” And the National Science Foundation and many government agencies require grantees to provide open access to their government-funded research via digital repositories, such as the PSU Libraries’ ScholarSphere.

The most vexing challenges facing libraries are legal and economic. Unlike interlibrary loan, which comes under the fair-use section of the copyright law, electronic content increasingly is licensed rather than purchased. That changes the legal status and gives publishers more control over the cost and use of that content. Libraries are charged more than individuals, as publishers view library use as “lost sales.” And the courts are reconsidering how fair use applies to digital information.

While the Internet and networks collectively have improved access to information and publications, licensing of electronic content and the reinterpretation of copyright law as it applies to digital information has changed the economic playing field in terms of its cost to libraries. Libraries continue to fight for public access, but these legal and economic shifts will influence how much libraries can afford to make available to their users, be them faculty, students, staff or the general public.

To learn more about the future of Penn State’s Libraries, register for my OLLI course, “PSU Libraries: Moving into the Future,” from 2 to 4 p.m. Oct. 28 at Paterno Library. To register, visit or call 867-4278. OLLI is open to all adults who love to learn.