Libraries and the Digital Age

Lately a lot of people I talk with have been asking me about the future of libraries. Friends, relatives, strangers, you name it. At least this time its being phrased as a question. Ten years ago we were being told by some that the Internet, more specifically the World Wide Web, meant the eminent demise of the library. It seemed a natural conclusion. If you can get all your information via the computer, why bother with the library?

Those of us who work in libraries tended to respond to this initial challenge in two ways–patient explanations that the bulk of recorded information was not online and assertions that people would still need our help to access the information that was online. We have done a good job over the years at providing this help, including research assistance, information literacy classes, public computers, and subscription access to databases and other resources. Business is booming at most libraries and it sure does not feel like we are in any danger of becoming obsolete.

Yet the recent conversations I have been having about the future of libraries makes me wonder. Most of them center on changes in the publishing industry due to the rapid growth in ebooks. As physical objects, print books are suited to lending and require a local place to house them. Not so for ebooks. If you disregard DRM/copyright, it is much easier to copy an ebook than to lend it. Indeed, “lending” an ebook is really just a form of DRM that is controlled by the publisher. And other than acquiring a reader, there is no reason to visit a physical location to access the ebooks themselves if you have an Internet connection.

It could be argued that there are three broad reasons people use libraries–they can’t find the information anywhere else; its more economical; or they just like visiting the library. It turns out that the first reason is fading rapidly as the vast bulk of recorded information moves online. Of course there will always be special collections and archives that house unique information, but this function is a bit different than the idea of the lending library.

It seems like libraries are on firm ground with the second reason since they provided access to econtent via subscriptions that individuals could not otherwise afford. But this access will probably be provided through cooperatives at a state or regional level versus the local library (e.g. Alaska Digital Pipeline).

The third reason (i.e. that people go to libraries because they like them) is perhaps the most compelling and enduring. Many things fall under this banner–the library as place, the user experience, library as community center, library as temple of learning, etc. Just like people still go to movie theaters in the age of netflix and home theaters, people will still want to gather around the idea of shared knowledge and life long learning.

Public access computing provided by libraries falls across all three reasons. Often the library is the only access point for some while for others the library provides cheaper access or a better user experience. For example, many students at the academic library where I work use the library computers even though they have a laptop or a computer back in the dorm room.

As the digital age comes to full fruition, libraries are facing a transform in technology and content as radical as the shift from hand-lettered scrolls to printed books. Libraries will survive but the way we do business will change. We can look to journalism to see the level of disruptions we will face. We still need the professional reporting provided by journalists working at newspapers. But as the economic model for print newspapers crumbles it is not clear how we as a society will sustain professional journalism, especially at the local level. In a similar fashion, there is an enduring value in the library as a common place to meet and share knowledge, but it remains to been seen what radical shifts will take place in the profession and the workplace.