Battle For the Heart & Soul of Libraries

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I have more than a passing acquaintance with the question of whether electronic media will replace books because of my day job in a rare book and manuscript library that sits within a larger library with nearly 3 million bound volumes and millions of electronic resources.

The answer in my neck of the woods is that books will coexist for the foreseeable because it is the policy of my bosses that our library will continue to order new books and preserve old books; the electronic resources merely complement them.

That is jolly good news for this bibliophile, who has an original copy of Shakespeare’s Second Folio (photo) and O.J. Simpson’s If I Did It within arm’s reach, but there is a larger battle playing out in libraries in this digital age that dwarfs my more immediate concerns.

That is whether libraries should make their books available online in digitized form.

The answer is that this particular train already has left the station. It is a matter of whether these books will be available online without restrictions or whether there will be encumbrances.

Not surprisingly, this battle pits giants like Google and Microsoft against those quaint open source folks. As someone who believes deeply that libraries should be repositories of knowledge for all with as few restrictions as possible, you’ll never guess who I’m rooting for.

While digitized books, manuscripts and other documents have great utility, they are no substitute for seeing, feeling and smelling the real thing.

One of the small pleasures of my job is seeing the look on the faces of young Shakespeare scholars when I pull the Second Folio from its slipcase and put it on a book cradle before them. Or when I bring out our extremely rare original of the 13th Amendment for a group of civil rights scholars. Or the original typescript of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with the handwritten annotations the playwright himself made minutes before the curtain went up for its Broadway debut.

11 Comments

  1. Shaun, come to Cincinnati once the renovation of Klau Library at HUC-JIR is complete and my friends the librarians will take you through the Rare Book Room!

  2. I too love books that can be held in my hand, pages turned and the smell of a new book. I agree that the book will go forward in both mediums, digital and hard copy. I’d love to be able to go through books that are old. When in college there were books, in open stacks, on architectural history that were 100 years old.

    One thing that you didn’t mention about the continuation of libraries is financial. There are many, many local libraries that are cutting back, closing branches, and out right closing due to lack of funds. In my ‘metro area’ there are six libraries for a population of around 125k. Three of the libraries are part of colleges, the other three are for the three towns that make up the ‘metro area’. (This does not include the public school system.) This past year 300k was cut from the main city’s library budget. This prompted the closing of the last remaining ‘branch’ of the city library and between Memorial Day and Labor Day, the main library is closed on Sunday, their busiest day of the week.

    Libraries are important, in my not so humble opinion, for the maintenance of society. For the desimination of information. For the repository of information (of whatever type). Libraries should not be limited to colleges and ‘big’ cities. Even though I haven’t opened many of my 200+ architectural history/historic preservation books in the past several years, they’re not leaving my house, if I have any say about it!!

  3. christine:

    Yes, the crisis in local library financing is awful and gets far too little attention. Merely preserving the larger hub libraries in cities and at universities is not enough.

    I grew up in a small town and it was always a thrill to visit the Bookmobile when it made its weekly stop down the street. Alas, that experience is pretty much gone today.

  4. Books will never go away. My sixty boxes of books (and many more lying on the floor in one room at home) aren’t going away. Powell’s Books and the Strand and many another used as well as new book store (and many a library) aren’t going away any time soon.

  5. In Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End, he describes the near-future digitization of a library’s books. It’s a pretty striking scene. The books are shoved off the shelves into a tree shredder and the resultant fragments are blown through a lighted pipe where they’re photographed in flight by a huge number of cameras. Massive computation is then used to match the torn edges and re-assemble the fragments into page images. The entire UCSD library is processed in just a few days.

  6. The two forms will merge within 20 years or so, with paper that will react like a touch screen. It will be a book, with just 3 or 4 pages, but you slip in a disk and can turn from page to page- this will save loads on recycling paper.

    There are prototypes already in the works.

    But this is bad news for highlighters and Post-its.

  7. As valuable as adult book addicts are, what happens to books in the future will depend on today’s children.

    I believe that if the love of books is introduced in the very early years, before video-games become a competitiion, the connection to books will survice, even if it becomes dormant during some periods of development.
    The evidence is mostly anecdotal, as studies of learning seldom separate learning from books from learning from computer programs.
    But the anecdotal evidence is powerful

    When small neighborhood libraries are closed, children’s reading hours vanish. Parents working multiple jobs have little time to provide reading hours of their own.
    Those are bad signs.

    To ensure a steady supply of book addicts and book preservers, we’ve got to figure out how to preserve the connection to books in the very early years. That connection stems from listening as books are read by adults: the reading hours.

    My 12 year old granddaughter, who hated school and learning grades 1-4, but now loves both, just wrote an essay about her memories of being read to when she was little. That’s pretty powerful anecdotal evidence to me. Being mentioned in the essay was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.

  8. I have a publicity handout from 1939 that predicted that television would not rival movies and that it would only be good for education and training.

    In light of that prediction, paper books are the epitome of an old technology with some improvements still to come. They are faster and easier to read, more portable and much more durable than a small electronic reader, and more transportable from one person to another.

    In fact, they are still much better than any electronic form because they involve most of the senses thus fully engaging the brain. it will be a long time before a computer does that with the printed word. (In spite of my love of blogs.)

  9. That’s why digitized paper and books will be much more acceptable than computer screens.

  10. I truly love books, not just reading. I cannot remember not being able to read. When we were in London years ago there wasn’t enough time to see everything but we certainly saw the rare books section and that was one of my favorite things.

    The only interest I have in electronic readers is for reference books. While I would never give up my 5000+ book collection I wouldn’t mind losing the shelves of computer reference manuals and having those go electronic. It would also be a great boon to students of all ages who have to haul heavy textbooks.

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