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Old 10-07-2006, 10:25 AM   #1
Bob Russell
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Do libraries have a future?

David Rothman over at TeleRead has posted a nice article, Debate in the American heartland: Are physical libraries obsolete?. In it, he discusses a newspaper column by a resident of Lawrence, Kansas who argues that public libraries are limited and obsolete, and that investment in Internet access is not only much more important to a city, but that it replaces the most information resources of a physical library.

David points out that an excellent case has been made for the Kansas Library, and that "E-books arenít going to replace all p-books instantly, and we badly need public libraries, especially neighborhood branches. They are essential as community gathering spots, for example, and as safe havens for children without good places to study at home." However, he also considers more closely the whole idea of a main library location versus the availability and investment in branch locations.

It seems to me that the discussion about the role and form of libraries has never really seemed to get off the ground very well. At least not in public forums. Oh yes, certainly there is a lot of talk about libraries, but has there been very much realistic discussion? Everyone seems to have such different ideas about why a library is important, or what a library should provide, or how technology fits in. Even the whole meeting place and community area side of things is a sensitive topic. But at the root of it all, is the frequently spoken underlying belief in almost everyone that we would all be better off if we read more.

Of course, I have some strong views about libraries also. One more sound to add to what seems like a cacophony of random voices. So let me just throw out a couple of thoughts into the mix and leave it at that. It's an important topic.

To start off, let me ask why is it better for us to read more? We all seem to just accept that without questioning it. And, for the record, I agree. But let me point out that I'm not sure that all kinds of reading are equal. I've mentioned before that I don't believe we get the same long lasting, character building and life improving benefits from gorging ourselves on the fast foods of the written word. In other words, if it takes you away from good books, you lose out on many of the benefits of reading if you are only reading all the latest tech news, newspapers and magazines and blogs. Well, except for MobileRead, which of course builds character and improves your life!

I'd also say (sorry Jane) that reading a romance novel is of questionable benefit to the soul. On the other hand, there are many kinds of reading that is not meant to be life changing, but simply entertainment. We will always have differences of opinion about what is better entertainment and is it good for you, but in one form or another we all seek it out, and we all need ways to escape from the rigors of life in a regular fashion. Certainly in general, books are a wonderful way to do this.

So at the core, libraries are important to be a supply of reading materials. Whether for research, learning or for fun, books are waiting at the library for us. Oops, that's one of the problems isn't it? You have to go get them! To my surprise, people still do that. But most people just buy books in these affluent cultures especially. What's a few dollars for a good book? Not much. And then you don't have to put up with old books that seems have developed a musty smell to them, and you don't have to make two trips to the library, and you don't have to worry about late fees.

Which brings me to the topic that interests me the most - the push toward library resources being available over the Internet. As libraries seek to remain relevant, they are looking for new ways to better get books and resources into the hands of patrons. There are collections of free movie rentals and audio book tapes and CDs that seem to bring some people to the library. There are many branch locations and all sorts of conveniences to allow books to be transferred to the local branch for patrons with a particular book of interest.

I bet they would start shipping books out to people at their homes if it wasn't for the cost involved, and the potential for loss. Well that's similar to what is accomplished with online audio books and e-books, isn't it? Just like e-book publishing efficiencies, you get all kinds of library efficiencies if you move from paper to Internet.

Fortunately, libraries understand that e-books are important for the future, and are pushing forward with e-books even though it's not widely understood and used. It's sort of the chicken and the egg -- you need the nice online libraries and familiarity of the public in order to justify the expenses of expanding online e-books. But you need to expand and improve the online book selection and service quality in order to pull in the people.

The only thing that we seem to forget in the public forums is that there's a big pink elephant in the corner of the room that nobody knows how to talk about -- format compatibilities and DRM. Without a few universal formats (including the DRM), which are supported on just about every platform present and future, you have problems. Not only does e-book reading become a pain in the neck (you can't choose what device to read the e-book on), but the library has no guarantees that it can continue to access and provide access to the e-books, because everyone is dependent on a third party to have continued availability to the content. And as we've seen, that's a nightmare to resolve because, if I may go on to demonstrate why it's not good to mix metaphors, every dog has their own bone in the race. Well, something like that, anyway.

Consumers and libraries want ease of use and reasonable prices for e-books. Publishers should want ease of use and reasonable prices, but it's hard to worry about that too much when you are focused on protecting content, controlling how and when and where it gets used, and keeping profits high. So, as has been noted before, not only are libraries almost universally viewed as important parts of society, but they may also become one of the best allies of the e-book fan. It's a lot more powerful to talk about the needs of libraries and the threat that DRM schemes pose to libraries than it is to talk about how I can't read an eReader e-book on my Sony Reader device!

Fortunately, the more that technology advances, the more successful e-books get, and the more pervasive the Internet culture grows to be, the more likely we will start to see some realistic discussions about how to make libraries relevant throughout this century, and how to find a compromise in the next generation of copyright law. I just hope that the general reading public that copyright law was initially created to benefit, doesn't become the victims of that very same body of law.
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