"To Boldly Go..."

Image by darkmatter/Flickr Last month, there was the widely reported story about a private school in Massachusetts that removed all of its books from its library. (I’ve written about it before here.) Later, it became clear that other departments had the chance to take books from the collection before the rest were removed. There was a lot of discussion in the online library community about the move and brought up the integral question: can a library exist without books?

For those who can't imagine a library without books, that kind of future has already been visualized. This was my recent epiphany watching reruns of Star Trek: The Next Generation on Sci-Fi (I refuse to call it SyFy). As I watched the crew of the Enterprise deal with the episode's problem, I could not help but notice the use of handheld devices, people reading nearly exclusively from monitors during their down time, and a computer system of near infinite cultural material storage and retrieval. And so here it was on the screen in front of me: a popular, highly regarded vision of a future space based society and nary a book to be found. The few books that do appear are highly prized personal possessions described by their owner as having been passed down from other family members or some other sentimental reason. No one ever appears to use their fabulous replicator technology to have a book created. They are content to use their view screens or handheld devices to do any reading. There is no ship library nor librarian nor even a information officer on a space ship that was reported to carry over 1,000 people. It simply did not exist within the confines of the Star Trek universe. And yet, it is an advanced and complex thriving intellectual and curious society that continues to push the boundaries of knowledge.

Of course, it's a science fiction series, not an actual depiction of the future. But what may seem depressing to some who read this, I see the ultimate in information interfaces. Upon second glance, this future meets some of the very needs that we want for our customers now. Information is instant, free, and on demand. The computer acts as a reference librarian with a vast database of all forms of knowledge; a person can make factual inquiries as well as user defined analytical requests as well. The holodecks take visual learning and content immersion to a whole new level of information presentation. The closest we get to this future vision is the handheld reading devices of the 1987 series that have an eerie resemblance to the modern handheld e-reader devices. And I would guess that someone has to program the computer and instruct it how to store and organize information lest the whole system become too unwieldy.

The truth of this future vision is that the entity of the library has wholly integrated itself into the daily lives of society. (Or, to take the line from that awesome library video, “everywhere is here”.) There is no need for a library as its own space when access is universal at the personal level. Effectively, in this future vision, librarians have been put out of business by a society that has realized the goals that we strive for now. Can this presentation of the 23rd century be any more of a positive reinforcement of the principles and goals of librarianship?

While I was writing this, I couldn’t help but think about Steven Bell’s article on the Library Journal website, “We need a new Sputnik”. While he was addressing the future research function in academic libraries, it really got me thinking about the types of changes that should be considered for the future public library. I’m going to think about it for now since it deserves its own post. But it has certainly lit my imagination afire with the promise and potential. How can we go from where we are now to make this aspect of a future vision a reality?


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In space, in any event. Simple take a box, fill it with books, and try to lift it. Now get a larger box and try it again. Ask yourself: what is the density of paper.

Then too, the library of the various vessels of the United Federation were reference libraries as well. Information frequently needed to be accessible within seconds.

There is nothing that cannot be found offensive by someone, somewhere.

It is good to see that Fang-Face has returned. I agree as to the lift requirements and the need to reduce weight. Robert Heinlein's novel Space Cadet talked about the practicality of spaceflight for a kid's perspective in the early part of the space race. Rather than imagining Kindles, Heinlein went with microfiche then. ________________________ Stephen Michael Kellat, MSLS PGP KeyID: DC5A625B

The Federation has also solved the problems of greed and want which hopefully means they worked out all the copyright crap that weighs down the Kindle. I don't see librarians as exactly extinct in such a setting. Computer experts, information brokers, historians, and archivists have thriving roles in Star Trek. Then there are storage systems such as the Vulcans collected souls and whatever the Guardian of Forever is. If Data, the most advanced computer they have (and they don't know how Soong did it) still has trouble sorting out human interaction, it means the fundamentals of information storage on a computer haven't much changed from now. They've only become faster and have systems that better mimic intuition. Most likely whatever would pass for librarians would be on colonies and starbases working on the source systems for the Enterprise's information systems which would have to be constantly updated, translated, tagged in ways I can barely wrap my head around and cross-referenced within an inch of its life.

Great article though. Very thought provoking.

In the movie Serenity the rather ragtag crew in their even more ramshackle spaceship have a lounge area not far from the kitchen. This area, full of obviously castoff furniture and lighting, also has shelf upon shelf of books, all held in place with netting to keep them from literally flying off the shelves. While they do make use of something called The Cortex, which is very Internet like, for their immediate information needs, it is clear that physical books have their place as well

Books as we know them may indeed evolve but learning to find, use and enjoy the information, history, tales and the wonder that you find in them will still need to be taught. Librarians at the school and public and corporate levels will certainly always be needed to instruct and guide users.

Also, I believe Jean-Luc Picard enjoyed relaxing with a good book and cuppa earl grey - hot.

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