Re: [OPE-L] Whither libraries?

From: Jerry Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@MSN.COM)
Date: Thu Feb 23 2006 - 11:33:06 EST

Hi Jurriaan,

Thanks for your reply.  You raise some valid issues.

> You can get some empirical indication of this from UNESCO's statistical
> institute 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.

I am reminded of the projections made in the early 1980's of a
"paperless office"  -- part of the "office of the future."   Of course, it
didn't  go down like that.  It is not uncommon for exaggerated claims
(by industry representatives, scientists, engineers, corporate p.r., the
media, etc.) to be made about the anticipated character and rate of
diffusion of new technologies.  In general,  the diffusion period for
new technologies (especially process technologies) tends to take many
years -- sometimes decades (during which time, they can be superceded
by still more sophisticated technologies).   Connecting this to the issue of
whether libraries will whither, I would suggest that this _is_ a trend which
will probably intensify over the course of the next few decades but will, as
you correctly note, be forestalled or delayed in some regions and cities
by struggles by communities and workers.

Yes,  communities will, no doubt, wage fights to keep libraries as
we know them now.  But, please do not forget that urban areas
internationally are often under fiscal distress and attempting to cut
city budgets.  In that context, I think they will increasingly target
libraries for closure.  So, what happens will be a consequence
of struggle -- a struggle that in many areas might be divisive, e.g.
residents fighting to keep funding for public secondary school
athletic programs or public parks or public transportation systems
or firehouses, et. al.  _rather than_ funding for libraries.

So long as more and more titles and entire sections  of libraries are
available electronically then urban areas _will _look for ways to
cut their costs in this way.  E.g. with existing systems of "inter-
library loans", they could shut down many libraries (as we know them)
but still offer citizens the ability to borrow 'hard' copies.  Thus, in
a particular region, there might be one big regular library and a
bunch of kiosks with computers in different neighborhoods or towns
_instead of_  the existing system of libraries.

> The main attraction of printed text on paper is physical ease of use and
> accessing, and reliability.

Right.  The main disadvantage is the cost -- both for purchase and
storage.  The latter can become a land use issue.

> 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
> comprehensively).
> - a paper document may be an essential piece of portable evidence or
> proof, where an electronic document cannot be.

On that last point, it should be noted that e-mails are increasingly
used in legal cases (e.g. in the Microsoft anti-trust case, the government
used e-mails from Microsoft executives to prove intent.)  But, it
is also the case that it is easy to 'forge' e-mails and electronic documents
so I think that your point is valid in certain contexts.

> - 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.

Good point.  I think that in coming decades the owners of certain formats
for the storage of images from digital cameras may face this problem.

> 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.

It's worthwhile noting that the main activity, though,  in many libraries
has been getting online.  Even the smallest library in the US has at
least one computer which is 'connected' and there are often waiting
lists to use library computers.

In solidarity, Jerry

PS on electronic vs. traditional publishing: a friend of mine is a member
of the Autonomedia Collective which has recently published certain volumes
for free on the Net and simultaneously printed hard copies.  He said that
their experience so far is that the e-publishing hasn't hurt their sales at
all.  I wonder, though, whether this is largely a consequence of
extraordinary circumstances, e.g.  Autonomedia books are usually
sold at lower prices than books sold by commercial publishers
and -- because of their graphic content -- they have special appeal
to collectors.

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