Monday, July 23, 2012

Are we on the path to bookless libraries?

David Bell writes  in The New Republic that the New York Public Library's plans to put millions of print books into storage and close branch libraries weren't driven by the digitization of books (Bell writes that there are more books available more quickly on an iPhone than at the NYPL,) but that the changes are inevitable given budgetary pressures and the rise of eBooks. Here's a summary:
  • The NYPL's Central Library Plan calls for transfer of millions of books from the stacks of the main branch to a facility in New Jersey, from which it will take at least 24 hours for them to be delivered back to NYPL's branches. In addition, some nearby branches will be closed and consolidated with the main library in the updated Schwarzman Building. New library head Anthony Marx claims that the physical consolidation of nearby branches into the main library will save as much as $16 million, or the equivalent of adding 50% to the library's endowment. 
  • The NYPL's acquisition budget has shrunk 26% over the last four years. 
  • Marx is developing a program whereby New York City public school students will be able to order print books from the NYPL system and have them delivered to their schools within 24 hours. 
  • In a few years, all cell phones will have Internet access. eReaders and tablets are improving quickly. While there are some good reasons to maintain print collections for research purposes, in the long run, the combination of shrinking financial resources and device improvements will dictate replacement of print with eBooks in libraries. However, this transition will most likely take 20 to 30 years. 
  • Digitization efforts by groups such as the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) will supersede the sloppy and often inaccurate job done by Google--for example, 325 books in Google's collection that mention Woody Allen have their publication dates listed as being prior to Allen's birth. 
  • The functions of libraries are still necessary, even in a world of eBooks: Providing research assistance, developing access portals for online content, organizing special programs and exhibitions, building both general and specialized collections, and screening out inaccurate and inappropriate content. 
  • It's inevitable that most, if not all, of these functions will eventually be available over the Internet, but there are many things that public libraries are uniquely suited to offer, as Bell writes: "Now, even as books and periodicals are increasingly available elsewhere, there is more and more public demand for other forms of interaction: lectures and seminars, tied to online courses and readings; authors’ appearances; book groups; exhibitions of art works and films; study centers hosting fellows who contribute to public discussions." 
  • These changes could lead some to conflate libraries with Internet cafés, but Bell writes that cafés were places of serious public discussion in 17th- and 18th-century London, Paris and Amsterdam.

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