23 Jul 2012

Coming Soon: Libraries Without Books

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One winces when one reads: “Recently the Yale University library unceremoniously junked its old card catalogue drawers, filling a large dumpster with them.”


David A. Bell
, in the New Republic, describes how cataclysmic change is coming to libraries everywhere and discusses what all this is likely to mean.

For how long will providing access to physical books remain a central mission for libraries? Even as reading on screens becomes more and more common, the number of books easily available in electronic form seems likely to increase, and a consensus for allowing some form of free access to “library copies” of digital files seems likely to emerge. True, the legal wrangling over Google Books has shown worrisome signs of stretching out, Bleak House– fashion, toward the next century. But with the digital files of copyrighted books already in existence, and with money to be made from their distribution, it still seems probable that within twenty years or so, it will be possible to download virtually any book ever printed, anywhere, to any device. The chances will be better for readers with access to some sort of subscription service—most often through universities where they study, or have faculty positions. But even for those without this sort of privileged access, some form of free access may very well emerge. And then, what future for libraries?

One nightmare scenario is all too easy to imagine. The year is 2033, and the Third Great Recession has just struck. Although voters have finally turned the Tea Party out of office in Washington, the financial situation remains dire across the country. New York City in particular faces skyrocketing deficits as a result of the most recent Wall Street wipeout, and the bankruptcy of Goldman Chase. In City Hall, a newly elected mayor casts a covetous glance at the grand main branch of the New York Public Library. Think how much money the city could save by selling it, along with the thirty remaining branch libraries scattered throughout the five boroughs. After strenuous negotiations, the mayor announces a deal with Googlezon, under which the company will make fifty electronic copies of any book in its database available at any one time to city residents, for two-week free rentals on the reading device of their choice. Two years later, where the main branch library once stood, the mayor proudly cuts the ribbon at the opening of the Bryant Park Mall. As for the services once performed by actual librarians, these have now been replaced by a cloud software package, with customer service representatives standing by online in case of technical difficulties (most of them physically located in suburban Manila).

In truth, such a turn of events would hardly rank with the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria in the annals of cultural vandalism. If it came to pass, readers would still enjoy, between the new electronic “lending library” and the public domain titles accessible through the Digital Public Library of America, a larger and more complete library at their fingertips (literally!) than exists today in any single locality. It would not be the barbaric destruction of knowledge. It would be the democratization of knowledge on a scale unimaginable in the pre-Internet age. The benefits are not to be discounted.

Yet the sacrifices entailed—the loss of physical libraries, and of librarians—would still be massive and culturally tragic.

I don’t personally give a rat’s ass about those “library communities” of his, but I certainly agree that the transition is going to be revolutionary and not without losses and pain.

From my own viewpoint as a researcher and regular user of major libraries, I wonder if the experts and planners managing the Great Revolution transitioning us from printed paper to electronic files sufficiently appreciate the crucial importance of preserving and maintaining access to serial publications.

It is very common for enormously larger quantities and much more detailed information on many subjects to have been preserved in ephemeral articles and letters in newspapers and magazines than ever actually made it onward to be preserved between the covers of actual books.

Serial publications are additionally characteristically cheaply printed on rapidly deteriorating acid-filled paper and weekly publications are typically folio sized. Not only are serials prone to be overlooked as a relatively insignificant afterthought by professional librarians. Their preservation is more costly and more difficult than that of most books.

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Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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SDD

All change seems painful at the time. My grandmother was distraught when the iceman stopped coming to her house and she had to buy a refrigerator.

Change that makes economic sense is inevitable unless government screws it up.

Print on Demand is getting to be so efficient that there can still be hard copy books at reasonable prices, but I doubt if this will be the main way we consume books for very long.



Surellin

I work in acquisitions for a large university library. About half of our current imprint acquisitions (that is, ordinary academic and popular titles from major publishers) are now purchased as e-books. The legal hassles are huge (yeah, about 50,000 people will have access to these titles through our license) but considering that we have spent the last twenty years building off-campus warehouses to store our less-used hard-copy books, this seems like a good idea. Also, a library does not simply supply knowledge. The reference desk is a vital (but underused) resource that allows professionals to find knowledge for the patrons from sources that the patrons probably would never find for themselves. That’s not to be sneered at – in a world where knowledge is free but unorganized, this kind of service can be seriously important.



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