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.