On the threshold of the 20th century, steel magnate Andrew Carnegie issued a challenge meant to bring knowledge to the masses: He would build and equip public libraries if local authorities donated the land and maintained them.
The philanthropist's millions erected 1,650 Carnegie libraries across the prairies, deltas and farmlands of a still youthful United States. Today, there are 16,000 public libraries across California and the nation, and on the cusp of the 21st century, a profound change is again taking place.
Far from becoming musty museums for those quaint things known as books, libraries are taking a quantum leap in their role as society's repository of knowledge: Nearly three-fourths have plugged into the Information Age, providing public access to the Internet and the chance to explore databanks and archives.
And libraries, more in demand than ever, are broadening their offerings, becoming a sort of cultural crossroads, complete with interactive exhibits for children or coffee bars and restaurants, like the one at Orange County's newest public library branch in Aliso Viejo.
"I've used the word 'apocalyptic' myself," Los Angeles City Librarian Susan Kent said of the transformation of one of America's most treasured public institutions.
Correspondingly, many experts--including state Librarian Kevin Starr, who calls libraries "malls for the mind and the imagination"--see the role of librarians becoming that of navigators on the frontiers of knowledge. Call them the ultimate search engines--or, perhaps the best high-tech name yet, cybrarians.
The movement to hard-wire libraries and redefine their mission is not without detractors. Some fear that placing too much emphasis on technology may backfire, and that librarians are too far ahead of their public--the "books versus bytes" debate. And some libraries, concerned that children could view adult material, have taken the controversial step of installing filters to block access.
Still, Kent called this "the most exciting time for public libraries" in decades.
* San Francisco's $140-million main library--both heralded and criticized as a high-tech model for the 21st century when it opened in 1996--has 220 computer workstations offering public access to library databases and the Internet.
* The California Legislature in September allocated $5 million to begin linking all 8,000 public and private California libraries into a single, interactive resource. That would mean the electronic databases of every library would be instantly available to any library patron anywhere in the state, so that someone who couldn't find a particular book in the Mission Viejo library could find a copy in Eureka or at Stanford University within seconds and request its delivery.
"This is a quantum leap in librarianship and resource sharing," Starr said of the $66-million program to be completed by 2010.
* Los Angeles voters last week overwhelmingly approved a $178.3-million bond measure for 32 projects to upgrade, renovate, expand or replace 32 branch libraries. This comes as an earlier $53-million bond measure for 27 branch libraries is nearing completion.
* The Orange County Public Library system, after restoring staff and hours of operation, is building new facilities after years of post-Proposition 13 cutbacks. The newest branch opened in January in Aliso Viejo with four computer terminals tied to the Internet, but there are state-of-the-art high-speed lines designed for expansion.
And as the millennium approaches, Microsoft's Bill Gates has emerged as the Digital Age philanthropist, offering $200 million over five years to bring computers into libraries in poor areas in the United States and Canada.
"That's as big an impact--if not more--than Carnegie had," said Elizabeth Martinez, former head of the Los Angeles City and Orange County public libraries who was executive director of the American Library Assn. when Gates' project was developed.
"Carnegie changed the physical landscape [of the public library] and made it accessible [to everyone], but Gates is making the 21st century available to low-income communities."
Library Use Remains High
Nationwide, demand for library services remains strong. A recent Gallup Poll showed that 64% of adults have library cards and averaged seven visits to a library last year.
Of those, 81% borrowed books, 65% consulted a librarian, 61% used reference materials, 50% read newspapers or magazines, 32% borrowed records, CDs or videos, 17% connected to the Internet, and 15% heard a speech, saw a movie, attended a class or a program.
In the Los Angeles Public Library system, which serves 3.7 million people--the largest population base for any public library in the country--patronage continues to rise: Angelenos made 11-million visits and borrowed 12 million books and other items in fiscal year 1997-98. That's up from 10 million visits and 11 million circulation items in 1996-97.