[OPE-L] Whither libraries?

From: Jurriaan Bendien (adsl675281@TISCALI.NL)
Date: Wed Feb 22 2006 - 14:43:20 EST

Jerry wrote:

This raises the issue:  are we in the preliminary stages of an
irreversible trend of the whithering way of (non-
electronic) libraries and librarians, (non-electronic) publishing
of books and journals, and the (non-electronic) retail sale of
books and journals?  Are all of the older forms of publishing,
sales, and storage of books and journals slowly becoming

You can get some empirical indication of this from UNESCO's statistical
institute http://www.uis.unesco.org/ which reports on global book and
newspaper production. The publishing world also produces sales statistics.
One-third of all books sold worldwide are said to be sold in the US. Looks
to me as though worldwide the amount of printed material and paper output is
still growing. Of course, a printer is attached to most desktops.

The main attraction of printed text on paper is physical ease of use and
accessing, and reliability. The fantasy is, that you have everything
immediately available on your own laptop or other mobile device, but:

- a paper display may be easier on the eye than a digital display.
- you can refer to bits of text, relate or collate them in different
locations within a work or several works, often faster and easier using a
paper text.
- a mobile electronic device, if reliable, still requires a reliable and
continuous power supply.
- somebody has to have made available the information digitally, in the form
that you actually want to use it (electronic databases can have limited
possibilities for relating different bits of information in any depth or
- a paper document may be an essential piece of portable evidence or proof,
where an electronic document cannot be.
- the paper medium often makes it easier to convert information from one
type of media to another - to convert digital information from one form to
another typically requires appropriate formats and "translation".
- because of rapid technological change, today's digital storage techniques
may be replaced within decades with other techniques, which means you still
need to store a paper master copy at least.

So I think good old printed matter will last a long time yet, globally
considered, existing side by side with other media. When I worked in a city
library, they taught me that libraries are an essential institution of a
democratic society, providing all citizens with access to information,
entertainment and knowledge. At some point, commercial principles and
democratic/civic principles can conflict - but the overall cost-benefit
economics of publicly accessible libraries are really incredibly good. So I
think libraries are not about to disappear either, although it's
occasionally necessary to campaign for their existence. Library science is
essentially a pragmatic science, i.e. use-oriented and typically librarians
can justify the benefits of different sorts of media in economic terms quite


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