HELENA -- Not that long ago, the Montana State Library, in charge of making state documents available to the public, circulated just a few hundred publications outside its walls each year.
Now, in just the past three months, the library has circulated some 18,000 digital documents, and what's available is vast: state agency reports going back years, and data-rich natural resource and geographic information resources covering everything form moisture levels to property ownership to oil and gas leases.
Jennie Stapp, the state library director since Jan. 1, is driving that digital train. Just nine years out of graduate school, she figures she's the youngest state librarian in the nation. She was, most recently, the digital library director and library's chief information officer. She succeeded Darlene Staffeldt, who had worked at the library for 35 years.
"We maintain collections, we circulate materials, we answer reference requests. We do what is considered traditional library work, but it's in a very nontraditional form because the majority of our collections are online, in digital format. So we're making that information available primarily via the Web," she said. "It's just amazing to watch."
Stapp started in library work as an international studies major at Rocky Mountain College, and then joined the Peace Corps with her husband, developing resource centers for women and children in Bolivia.
Now the state library, in the building on Sixth Avenue that also houses Montana Department of Justice offices, is becoming increasing virtual. It has a print collection of about 55,000 items, but that number is shrinking as documents get digitized, with the print copies heading off to the state archives, which are part of the Montana Historical Society.
It's a long process, subject to the variations of funding. Complete digitization was once expected to be a five-year project, Stapp said. Now, it's looking to last seven to 10 years, and the library is about four years into the project.
Digitization doesn't just mean that a document is more easily available. It also lets people find what they're looking for much more quickly. Traditional card catalogs, whether paper or digital, would typically only give minimal information.
"Until digital, people interested in certain things didn't even know documents were available," Stapp said.
Some 15,000 state documents are available on a Web site of the San Francisco-based Digital Archive (www.archive.org), and more are reaching it every day.
"At a remarkably low cost, they will digitize materials that we send to them, and put them online," Stapp said. "They're a phenomenal organization to work with."
Digital Archive also operates the Wayback Machine, which since 1996 has captured information from Web sites around the world, sometimes with a varying frequency. To help the machine capture the ongoing flow of Montana government materials on its various websites, the library participates in a program called Archive-It, defining how often the machine should crawl the government sites - weekly, monthly or whenever. That information now resides on the Internet Archive's servers, helping fulfill the library's mandate to make state information - print or online - accessible to all who seek it.
The library also reaches within Montana, trying to better connect and empower the 82 independent local libraries across the state.
That means developing the Library2Go program, which helps patrons borrow digital materials like e-books. More than 60 libraries statewide are participating.
Local libraries also have a wealth of unique local information - photos, documents and meeting minutes - that are not yet accessible elsewhere. The state library is trying to help those libraries get the training, hardware and software they need to make it accessible digitally in the Internet. And that means a need for proper Internet bandwidth, Stapp said.
And there's the Montana Memory Project, which the library conducts along with the Montana Historical Society, making available software and scanner/laptop combinations to lend to local libraries to digitize their own materials.
The project already has some 300,000 digital items, and some libraries are also seeking additional unique materials, such as family photos, from their local patrons.
In her office, Stapp has a clock made of an old disc - one of the CDs containing library catalogs that as late as about 2000 libraries would send to one another to help patrons find materials, available through the traditional inter-library loan before the days of data-rich online transfer.
"This has happened in just over a decade," she said.