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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 aren’t 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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Old 10-07-2006, 12:45 PM   #2
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Okay… I don’t know where to begin on this topic, but you finally got me to de-lurk. Well, firstly I am the daughter of a librarian. I grew up crawling on the carpeted floors and running amidst the stacks of university and community libraries. I learned the love of reading both at home and in libraries. Though I no longer frequent libraries on the regular weekly basis I used to, I still support the need for libraries wholeheartedly. I agree they are vital community meeting places, but I also believe that for many children their first real experience with a book….choosing it, holding it, reading it, even taking it home…all of this is usually through a community library. Growing up with educated but poor (grad student) parents, the only opportunity to get my hands on a book, especially a new book was first the local children’s library. Technology as wonderful as it is cannot yet match that elemental tactile experience. You gotta walk before you run.

That said, I believe that most libraries will eventually transform into large, mostly archival repositories. E-book technology and online resources will eventually take the place of libraries for more casual readers. For scholars, viewing original texts will still be considered necessary, but even that is being challenged with online high-resolution archives. Tech will bring about these changes, but it will be a bittersweet process. If you don’t believe, try explaining to your teenager how you would wait anxiously outside the record store to buy a 45 of the latest hit by your favorite group.

Ahem, Bob, about the benefits (which I gather you question) of reading romance novels, I will let Jane speak to that, but I'll let you know that in addition to doing a fair amount of scientific, technical, and informational reading, I am also an avid romance reader. We're everywhere...
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Old 10-07-2006, 01:40 PM   #3
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Quote:
Originally Posted by raevyn1
I am also an avid romance reader. We're everywhere...

I dont mean to bash you or romance readers, but women in general LOVE romance novels. Its just that women's minds work differently than men's and they can appreciate a good romance novel differently than a man can. Men see romance novels a waste of time, women see in them great entertainment and joy.

End of rant
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Old 10-07-2006, 02:19 PM   #4
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My problem with public libraries is that mostly what they carry is trash reading. I know public libraries that have a larger fiction section than the non-fiction and reference sections put together. Now, there's nothing wrong with that; in fact, I probably read more trash books than anyone else. But when you need to do some real research, especially science (i.e. chemistry), public libraries have such limited resources that you're forced to go to a local university, which, for many people, isn't so local.
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Old 10-07-2006, 02:57 PM   #5
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Originally Posted by Gantrioch
My problem with public libraries is that mostly what they carry is trash reading. I know public libraries that have a larger fiction section than the non-fiction and reference sections put together. Now, there's nothing wrong with that; in fact, I probably read more trash books than anyone else. But when you need to do some real research, especially science (i.e. chemistry), public libraries have such limited resources that you're forced to go to a local university, which, for many people, isn't so local.
I'm not certain what you mean by "trash" reading, but if you mean primarily popular reading, usually fiction, then I agree that most community libraries tend to carry that in more of an abundance than they do the research volumes you refer to. The reason is simply DEMAND -- local libraries respond to popular demand, which is usually for "lighter" reading material. Larger cities of course will have a Main or Central library which tends to house harder science texts and the like. The limited funding that many community libraries face often limits their ability to subscribe to some scientific journals as well to purchase updated science texts. So, instead they opt to have more popular offerings and leave the "heavy" burden to the university, law, and medical libraries. As they say, it is about the benjies... (money, that is).
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Old 10-07-2006, 03:00 PM   #6
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Originally Posted by raevyn1
I'm not certain what you mean by "trash" reading, but if you mean primarily popular reading, usually fiction, then I agree that most community libraries tend to carry that in more of an abundance than they do the research volumes you refer to. The reason is simply DEMAND -- local libraries respond to popular demand, which is usually for "lighter" reading material. Larger cities of course will have a Main or Central library which tends to house harder science texts and the like. The limited funding that many community libraries face often limits their ability to subscribe to some scientific journals as well to purchase updated science texts. So, instead they opt to have more popular offerings and leave the "heavy" burden to the university, law, and medical libraries. As they say, it is about the benjies... (money, that is).
Yes, I didn't want to go into why.
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Old 10-07-2006, 03:04 PM   #7
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Originally Posted by vranghel
End of rant
Sniff. That wasn't much of a rant.
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Old 10-07-2006, 03:18 PM   #8
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Originally Posted by Gantrioch
Yes, I didn't want to go into why.
I respect that. Unfortunately, the whys and whatfors are going to in part drive the fate of libraries. Imagine if people actually stop visiting physical libraries for even the so-called trashy reads, how would they change?
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Old 10-07-2006, 05:06 PM   #9
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Libraries have so many values (and need to cdhange SO much!) I fully agree about the introduction to reading (or more importantly selecting) that libraries offer - the suplimentary aspect to formal education at all levels is avital community service.

Access to reading is key. I really don't care about format in this respect. If people either cannot afford paper books or cannot afford the entrance fee to electronic reading - this social service should NEVER go away ... and this is a physical access issue.

Libraries as an archive? - Certainly in electronic land this is a sort of oxymoron - when the format is infinately distributable - the duplication of too many repositories becomes redundant (enough to avoid the Alexandria syndrome, sure, but the need beyond "back up" for both physical and electronic is a waste - I'd rather see investment in access!)

Physical libraries is quite a limited debate - what about the role of librarians themselves in future libraries - ontologist/taxonomists? educators? agitators? Can they really compete with search algorthms? e-learning? altruistic(?!!) companies such as Google?
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Old 10-07-2006, 05:14 PM   #10
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I consider a library a social instituation. I probably spent half of my studies in libraries hanging out with college friends - and it was not merely for reading books. We studied for exams, we did research on the Net, we held group sessions, and we shared information sources among each other.

Sure you may try to emulate this all in the virtual world, but I dare to say that physical human-human interaction is too important to be left to some IM chatting tool.
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Old 10-07-2006, 05:35 PM   #11
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I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment ... but that was what you DID, many of the functions you mention can be easily (and possibly moreeffectively) replicated elsewhere within a college. Should the library service (or building) really perform all of these functions in the future? There are no such things as reading rooms in the UK anymore - but these were the only place for public reading in 19C, serving as places for general discourse, learning and politcal debate. 100 years later we have libraries, and the rate of change is MUCH faster. Will there be libraries in another 20 years - if so what will they actually evolve into - it certainly won't be what we knew when we used them either at college, school or in the community ...
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Old 10-07-2006, 05:40 PM   #12
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I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment ... but that was what you DID, many of the functions you mention can be easily (and possibly moreeffectively) replicated elsewhere within a college.
Well, I wasn't the only one, trust me

Quote:
Should the library service (or building) really perform all of these functions in the future? There are no such things as reading rooms in the UK anymore - but these were the only place for public reading in 19C, serving as places for general discourse, learning and politcal debate. 100 years later we have libraries, and the rate of change is MUCH faster. Will there be libraries in another 20 years - if so what will they actually evolve into - it certainly won't be what we knew when we used them either at college, school or in the community ...
Perhaps there is a difference between public libraries, which are mostly used for as a reference source by individuals, and university libraries, which are much more than just a storage place for books.
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Old 10-07-2006, 06:05 PM   #13
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A recent article in our local newspaper said that useage of the public libraries here is actually *up* and that it's due primarily to the internet! Web searching of the card catalog, requesting, renewals... all make it easier to use the public libraries and people do.

Perhaps a generation or so hence, they will have a different form, but until everyone can afford to pay for content, there will be public libraries, imo.

(There's also the issue of database owners who only license their information for library use. This is mostly with academic libraries, but it's also true of some for public libraries. Through my public library's web site, I can access quite a few databases, including my personal favorite: the Oxford English Dictionary.)
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Old 10-07-2006, 07:20 PM   #14
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Sniff. That wasn't much of a rant.

it was a mini-rant
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Old 10-07-2006, 08:18 PM   #15
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it was a mini-rant
Biting my tongue here, guys.
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