CORVALLIS - One of the most ambitious higher education projects in Oregon history will be launched on Friday, May 24, when Oregon State University breaks ground for its $40 million library expansion.

A groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled for 1 p.m. on the quad just north of The Valley Library (formerly Kerr). It is free and open to the public.

When completed in the fall of 1998, the project will add about 136,000 square feet to OSU's six-story Kerr Library, creating a new mega-structure that is similar in size to the Meier and Frank store in downtown Portland.

Even more important, OSU officials say, is that the new library will be a state-of-the-art, high tech operation that will merge technologies of the past, present and future in one building.

"This is very much a transitional time in which information distribution is still about 90 percent stored in a traditional print format," said Melvin George, OSU director of libraries. "There is nothing to indicate an immediate, total switchover to an electronic format. Yet it already has begun."

OSU's new "library of the future" will boast three important elements, George said:

-A better environment for traditional library use, including bound volumes, through sophisticated temperature and humidity control;

-A modern, open floor plan designed to accommodate the latest technologies, including computer networks, massive databases, and multimedia stations; and anticipated future technologies, such as wireless machines;

-An extensive program of "mediation services" to replace the traditional library reference desk. The new Valley Library will include an "Information Commons," boasting a variety of work stations and data sources, and staffed by personnel trained in multimedia technology, computer hardware and software, and library services.

"I won't say the concept of an Information Commons is completely unique," George said. "But it is rather unusual. I think only 4-5 libraries in the country can offer the 'gourmet mediation' service we will offer."

The information commons should be open 24 hours a day, George said, and include 200 computerized study stations. An additional 2,400 stations will be located throughout the building - all with access to the Internet, a variety of computer networks and databases, and printing.

The library also will contain: a computerized classroom to help train students and faculty to use new technologies; 33 group study rooms with electronic data access for students working on group projects; and 44 enclosed research carrels designed for graduate students and faculty.

George said designing the "library of the future" has not been an easy task. Much of the new structure - and some of the existing building, which will undergo remodeling - will emphasize electronic or digital forms of data. However, the expansion also will enhance access to the library's more traditional forms of information.

A 4,000-year-old Cuneiform clay tablet from Mesopotamia is the oldest artifact in the library. But its rich resources also include the Book of Ester, 750 A.D., an example of the style of books before the invention of the printing press; a 15th-century manuscript of Gregorian chants; gold-tooled books from the 18th century; and special collections, including the books, papers and medals of Linus Pauling.

The Pauling collection will be housed in a new location and made more accessible, George said. And, symbolic of the new library, it also will be available through a digital format. The collection was given to the library by Pauling, a 1922 OSU graduate and two-time winner of the Nobel Prize.

Construction on the expansion project will bring the new Valley Library to 318,000 square feet. The remodeling of the current structure will improve the building's safety during an earthquake, and the new brick exterior is expected to significantly reduce energy bills.

Funding for the $40 million has come from a variety of sources, OSU officials say. The 1993 and 1995 Oregon Legislatures each authorized $10 million challenge grants to the university, which OSU matched through private gifts, including a $10 million grant from the Valley Foundation.

When completed, The Valley Library will offer cutting edge technology, new ways to access data, and multimedia learning stations. In some ways, though, nothing will change.

"What libraries have always done is to bring people and ideas together," George said. "We're simply continuing that process."

Note: Two sidebars accompany this story - a look at the future of "mediated services" and a groundbreaking schedule.

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Mel George, 541-737-3411