THE domed conference room was filled with the world's foremost librarians, their voices hushed with the urgency of the crisis they face.
It's a global problem — touching on saving the record of civilisation itself — and no clear answers are in sight.
Often more comfortable quoting 17th century authors than surfing the Internet, representatives from more than 35 libraries gathered to discuss how their institutions can survive in an increasingly digital world.
"There's a lot of pressure," said Wim van Drimmelen, head of the Koninklijke Bibliotheek in the Netherlands. "The students of today hardly know there are books. If they have to write an essay, they start surfing the Net. "
Only a fraction of libraries have full-fledged plans for archiving digital material. And while businesses increase the amount of digital information, libraries — and frazzled librarians — are left trying to figure out how to handle it all.
"It's not unlike the field of chemistry just after the discovery of the molecule," said Richard Ekman, secretary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and keynote speaker at last week's Virtual Libraries summit at the New York Public Library.
"The characteristics of digital data are still not very well understood, and they're still changing. It may simply be too early to find answers," Ekman said.
Ariane Lljon, a specialist in information technologies with the European Commission in Luxembourg, put it another way:
"The basic definitions we're dealing with," he said, "have become vague".
In a global environment, collections are scattered in numerous museums, archives and libraries. The technological age is proving too costly and fast moving for libraries to easily decide which hardware and software to buy.
"It's certain that the future of libraries lies in part in the digitised library," said Jean-Pierre Angremy, president of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France. "But you cannot afford to digitise everything. We don't have the time or money."
While the Dewey Decimal System and the proper temperature for storing fragile documents are well known, it's still unclear what software will be compatible with computers in future decades — or centuries.
"If you take a piece of paper, it lasts 500 years. If you take a CD-ROM, it lasts 10 years. It's frightening," Angremy said. "There's a new type of CD-ROM, which might possibly last 100 years, but it's very, very expensive."
New York Public Library President Paul Le Clerc warned that, unless someone keeps pace, parts of contemporary civilisation might be lost to future generations.