With reference materials easily accessible online, modern public libraries are now more like coffeehouse meeting places with Internet access than book lenders. But libraries and librarians still serve a purpose, say officials from the Library of Congress, academia and the Web search industry, and they have formed an advisory group on cyber-age bibliography.

Over the next year, the working group will address how to catalog information in a digital world, said Jose-Marie Griffiths, the chairman of the committee and dean of the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The working group will communicate via e-mail and in physical meeting spaces between now and July.

While search engines have mostly replaced card catalogs, Griffiths said people require help wading through the jungle of content online.

"We still need to understand what edition we are talking about. Has it been updated?" she said. "We’re talking about providing structure so that people can find what they want to find and know that it is valid and authentic."

The term bibliographic control, or the organization and classification of media, means something different today than what it did during the days of the Dewey Decimal System. Griffiths said she believes the concepts of bibliographic control "can be brought forward into the new world," but there are differing opinions as to how.

Tools like Digg.com that allow content to be tagged according to people’s own vocabularies are part of the reason the working group includes a broad array of constituencies, Griffiths said. Members include representatives from Ask.com, Google, Microsoft, the Online Computer Library Center and other information science organizations.

The group will convene next in early March, with the goal of providing recommendations to the Library of Congress in late summer.

Library of Congress officials believe it is essential that libraries continue to exist. They are becoming "places where the community can come together," said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for Library Services.

Marcum hosted the working group’s first meeting earlier this month. In many instances, the public library is "the one neutral place where community members can meet and discuss all kinds of topics and kids can find Internet access readily."

The financial aspect of indexing the Internet will be one of the biggest hurdles, said Judith Nadler, a member from the Association of Research Libraries, the director of the University of Chicago library and the university librarian.

"I believe the importance of sharing information — the importance of open access to information — is something that everybody is committed to … but it also has to be achieved in cost effective ways," Nadler said.

Another challenge may be copyright law, she said. Publishers have sued Google to stop the company’s Google Book Search project, an ongoing effort to scan snippets from every book housed in public and university libraries, including copyrighted works.

Google officials were not able to respond by press time.