SACRAMENTO — In the biggest boon for bibliophiles since the County Library Act of 1911, California has embarked on the creation of a virtual library.
Called the Library of California, it is envisioned as a high-technology search and sharing network for all 8,000 public and private libraries in California--a sort of Amazon.com for 170 million library books.
Eventually, it will link the neighborhood branch library with such far-flung sources as the California School of Professional Psychology in Fresno, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and a San Diego biotechnology firm.
It may take decades for people to be able to use the system through personal computers in homes or offices, but public library patrons will get their first glimpse of the future this year through expanded access to databases.
Within two years, some regional search networks are expected to be up and whirring.
That contrasts with reality in most community libraries now, where books may be routinely shared within counties. But gaining access to collections at all 1,000 city and county libraries requires persistence and patience. Even state Librarian Kevin Starr recently waited six weeks for a biography to travel 90 miles.
"We haven't had a really good feel for what is out there," said Barbara Will, who signed on as network coordinator for the statewide project more than a decade ago and spent her first six months visiting libraries around California.
Will said that when local librarians break the news that a certain book cannot be obtained, often "a library two counties away has it and we just didn't know it."
By extending its tendrils into university, high school, hospital and even corporate libraries, the statewide network would go much farther.
Will helped launch a precursor project in New Jersey in the mid-1980s that gained acclaim, although she acknowledges that the relative size of the two states makes the comparison imperfect.
Legislature Has Yet to Commit Funding
There is a price to be paid for such broad access to the printed word. The Legislature must be persuaded to increase the $5 million in seed money allocated this year to the $100 million a year it could cost to actually run the system.
Starr shudders at mere mention of that sum, but remains confident the state will not turn back now.
"We'll earn it very slowly," he said. "If we'd known what the California freeway system would cost when we built the Pasadena Freeway in 1940, we never would've built the Pasadena Freeway."
Consider the unpromising start for the Library of California back in 1985: The state library invited 100 librarians to Pomona to plan a statewide network. Participants were so unconvinced of the value of such a pursuit that the conference agenda had to be thrown out the first day in favor of a debate over whether a network should be created at all.
Ultimately the Pomona conferees agreed to pursue the network, but it took the collaboration of 2,000 librarians over the course of a decade for a proposal to be drafted.
State Sen. Dede Alpert (D-Coronado) picked up the cause last year, pushing through the Library of California Act that became law in January, which was supported by all but a handful of fiscal conservatives.
It committed the state to spend $5 million this year and $10 million next year, but clearly explained that commitment would increase to $50 million in five years and double that later on.
Alpert said she took on the bill because of her belief that libraries must keep up with the technology explosion as a means of bridging the gap between technological haves and have-nots.
"This means, no matter where you live or where you are in California, no matter how poor or how isolated, you will have access to the same information," she said.
Nearly half of Californians visit public libraries regularly, according to a state library survey; Southern California libraries get the most traffic.
This year the Library of California emphasis is on a few pilot projects meant to show the Legislature that the system will work. One will give public libraries access to such databases as online encyclopedias and newspapers.
The next step will be developing a statewide search engine and making sure all libraries have the technology to use it. Then a cyberspace reference desk will be created where librarians around the state can sleuth for answers to online queries.
Even though increasing amounts of information will be available online, the core of the Library of California will remain books, for the near future. That means setting up a system to move those books around the state quickly.
Starr envisions becoming "a very good client of Federal Express," or perhaps to start a less expensive dedicated express mail system for books.
Participation in the Library of California is voluntary--although in order to borrow, libraries must share and promise not to cut their book budgets, so it remains to be seen who will sign on.
Research Libraries Fear Being Overrun