Saturday, December 4, 2010

The Future of the Printed, Paper, Hardcopy Book and Libraries

Its a quiet, snowy Saturday morning. I'm here at work staffing our Saturday shift along with two students, and the couple of researchers we have in the reading room. Not a lot is going on. So I thought I'd spend a little bit of time reflecting on a question one of my students asked me the other night in class. It was a direct, straightforward question: where do I stand on the future of libraries? Are they going to be around twenty years from now?

The question was asked within the context of an interesting discussion we were having on digital preservation (appropriate because the class I teach at St. Catherine's MLIS program is on preservation and conservation and this was the topic of the evening). The student who asked the question said that it was a topic of conversation during her Thanksgiving dinner (which was interesting in itself, I thought; I don't remember what we talked about around our Thanksgiving table. My Thanksgiving was spent, in large part, adoring and holding my new granddaughter and keeping an eye on whatever football game was on the tube). I gave, I thought, a pretty convincing answer. (At least one of my students gave me a thumbs up when I finished, so I must have said something sensible.) But since all of that took place in an oral context, I thought I'd try to put my answer down in writing and maybe expand on it a bit (with maybe a little more data to back up my thoughts). This won't necessarily be a "deep" answer to the question, but it will at least get some of my thoughts into written form.

The simple answer to the direct question is "yes." Libraries are going to be around twenty years from now. They will look and operate differently from today's libraries, but there will still be a place where people can go to get information; receive advice, direction, and counsel on resources; and check out materials for their own use. Not everything will be available digitally. There will still be a need for people to hold or touch or smell an item in person because the thing they are interested in has something beyond informational value. It will have artifactual value or evidential value or some other type of value beyond what can be ascertained from words or symbols on a screen. It is for this reason, among others, that I work in the area of special collections and rare books. People will always have a need to see the things that I care for, that I arrange and describe, and that I place -- as a digital surrogate -- on the Web for them to see. There are just some things that don't come through or translate in a digital environment. And there are some things, too ephemeral, that will not be worth the time or effort to digitize. But people will still want to see them and for us to keep them.

The flip side of this bias I have for the rare and the special is a bias toward the generic side (or maybe the "dark" side) of libraryland. More and more libraries will look more and more like each other in terms of the general types of materials they have available to patrons in digital formats. The only limiting factor will be how much money a library has to pay for licenses or other types of subscriptions or access. Every library (and individual) will have access to things like Google Books (at the present time they have something like 15 million books in their hopper) or some basic indexes and abstracts covering general/popular literature, along with some more specialized (yet general) indexes and abstracts for scholarly materials. I'd venture to say (although here I might be on a bit of slippery ground) that there's not much difference between my working library (the University of Minnesota), my public library (Hennepin County), and my teaching library (University of St. Catherine) in terms of access to these types of materials. A comparison, for example, between the resources available in the Electronic Library for Minnesota and any of the libraries I just mentioned will probably not show much difference for general type resources. What this means, in the long run, is that libraries will lose their local color and flavor unless some part of them is engaged in collecting local materials (and in making sure that these local materials are made accessible and not hidden away in some basement room or closet). A corollary to this, found more in research libraries, is the continued development and expansion of "collections of distinction." These may, indeed, be digitized but will also act as "research magnets that attract researchers and scholars from around the world."

Finally (since we're in the last half hour of Saturday business and soon it will be time to close up shop) a couple of words about books -- paper and electronic. E-books are grabbing people's attention. Not long ago Amazon announced that it was selling more e-books that traditionally printed books. That's well and good for Amazon. But I'll stick with paper, thank you. I don't have to plug it in or recharge it. Its the original random access device. Paper books are renewable resources. It takes a coal or nuclear power plant to fuel an e-book. Last time I checked, neither of these were renewable resources. I can keep my paper book in less than ideal environments and not worry that its going to short out or explode if it gets wet. It bends. It won't crack (unless I'm really brutal in my handling). I could go on, but you get the idea. I like technology. I use technology (for this blog among other things). But when it comes to "paper" or "plastic" in the checkout line, I'll stick with paper.

Time to check in with the troops and make sure our readers get out the door. I'm sure I'll still be welcoming readers to the library well into the future.

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