"The Bookless Library" Opinion piece from The New Republic

David A. Bell, Professor of History at Princeton University and Contributing Editor to The New Republic, opens his July 12 piece, "The Bookless Library" with a comparison of the physicalities of the New York Public Library's main building and an iPhone, and concludes by pointing out that "there are now far more books available, far more quickly, on the iPhone than in the New York Public Library." He continues:

It has been clear for some time now that this development would pose one of the greatest challenges that modern libraries—from institutions like the NYPL on down—have ever encountered. Put bluntly, one of their core functions now faces the prospect of obsolescence. What role will libraries have when patrons no longer need to go to them to consult or to borrow books? This question has already spurred massive commentary and discussion. But in the past year, as large-scale controversies have developed around several libraries, it has become pressing and unavoidable.

He goes on to discuss the e-book vs print collection dilemma, pointing out the availability of books through projects like Google Books, Project Gutenberg, JSTOR, and the DPLA (Digital Public Library of America.) He also highlights the rising infiltration of American households by cellular technology, which is increasingly likely to include internet access. He then lays out the tremendous cost communities face in keeping up these large spaces that house libraries. He posits a nightmare future scenario in which a newly elected New York City mayor announces a deal with Googlezon and the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building is sold and turned into the "Bryant Park Mall." Librarian services are, of course, outsourced - to Manila. His caution to libraries on how to avoid that scenario begins: 

If libraries are to survive, and thereby preserve their expertise, their communal functions, their specialized collections, and the access they provide to physical books, they must find new roles to play. The critics of the NYPL Central Library Plan claim that it has put the library’s standing as a premier research institution in jeopardy, but they finally fail to acknowledge that the very nature of premier research institutions—and all other libraries—is changing in radical and inexorable ways. Clinging to an outdated vision of libraries is in fact the best recipe for making them look hopelessly obsolescent to the men and women who control their budgets...

He goes on to praise the things libraries have to offer that won't be fulfilled by the best access to e-books that could be offered: the communal space, the workspace, the other patrons, the expertise of librarians, and the unique items held in special collections. He continues by discussing the opening up of scholarship through distance learning, through freely available lectures and courses online, the breakdown of the "ivory tower" when eminent scholars can be addressed via email. Paradoxically, the world of learning at a person's literal fingertips makes the physical contact of research and scholarship that much more desirable, Bell argues. And this is where he sees the public library developing new roles and simultaneously assuring its continued relevance and existence.

And what institutions are better suited to serve this purpose than libraries? Universities tend to be located away from major population centers, and classroom space in them tends to be a tightly controlled and valuable commodity. By contrast, the great public libraries of America occupy some of the country’s choicest and most accessible real estate. From the days of Benjamin Franklin onward, moreover, public outreach and public instruction have been their principal purpose. Until recently, they could serve this purpose above all by providing access to books and periodicals. 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. Public libraries already do a great many of these activities, but they need to do even more, in partnership with universities, publishers, and anyone else willing and able to help. And since the best initiatives of this sort rarely emerge from programming committees, libraries should have public spaces open to ordinary readers to organize appropriate activities on their own. While librarians were once known for telling readers to hush, now they need to invite them to speak.

Like it or not, the great public libraries of the world simply will not remain what they were, not in an age of severe cost pressures in which a greater and greater proportion of citizens carry about the equivalent of a score of research libraries in their pockets and purses. The transformation is upon us.

It's a thought-provoking and engrossing article, even if it seems to (I'd say wrongly) dismiss academic libraries.

Full article at The New Republic


The problem with all of these arguments is that they all miss an essential point: library books are free, books on the internet aren't (unless they're in the public domain or whatever). It doesn't matter if a computer can access every book written while the library only has 10, so long as the library provides free access that the computer doesn't.

Right, but part of his argument is that libraries need to move to providing more ebooks than physical books, that that needs to be a feasible model for libraries. I tend to disagree because so far ebooks seem to be more about access than ownership and that's the beautiful thing about so many of the physical items in a library - they belong to the library until the library decides to get rid of them. (Or until they get lost/stolen, but let's not dwell on that.)

DNRTFA (yet), but:

Library books aren't free.

Worse than being a fool, a historian who is stuck in the present is an idiot. The format for placing books on an iphone, a kindle, a nook, on several word processors or online are all different. There is no established format for electronic books as there is for published books. Until one is established, any institution that purchases an electronic format is doomed to re-purchase their entire collection every time the format changes. Did the iphone exist ten years ago? No. Will it exist ten years from now? No.

At a local research library there is a full cabinet filled with geological reports and maps that were published only in electronic media. Regretfully, that media was in 3.5 inch diskettes. While computers can be located that can read the disks, few have the software to read the files. Remember Scribe, Pen, WordStar and many others word processing programs? Even those that still exist from the late 1980s and 1990s, such as Word, cannot read such old formats. It was to expensive to keep translating them into the new formats as they came along, and now they are several generations behind, and can't catch up. This obsolete collection is worthless, and is a black hole in the geological literature.

Is this person really saying that in order to produce individual convenience, they should invest in re-purchasing the entire collection every time the format changes, or when the new format that looks like a winner actually ends up in the dustpan?

This is typical of sophmoric and adolescent thinking, much as Nicholas Baker with his attack on newspaper collection in libraries several years ago. Everything is SO EASY and SO Simple as long as someone else does all the work, pays all the bills, and takes all the responsibility.

Reality sucks, and also shows this man does not know what he is talking about. When he addresses staff, space and budget, then I will listen to him. As long as he sky-writes simplistic solutions to complex problems, he is an idiot.

By the way, if this is David Avrom Bell, his book, "The first total war : Napoleon's Europe and the birth of warfare as we know it", does not appear to be available on either Kindle or Nook. There is an indication on worldcat.org that it is an internet resource, but I was only able to find a link to the table of contents online. If his own books are not available to read on an iPhone, then his whole argument is silly.

From article -- there are now far more books available, far more quickly, on the iPhone than in the New York Public Library.

Comment: My daughters had six books checked out from a branch library of a moderate size mid-western town. By no means the NYPL. My youngest daughter had three children's books. None are available for the iPhone. Even if they were they would be horrible reads on an iPhone screen. An iPad might be passable but two problems: 1) Books we are talking about are not available for the iPad 2) I don't have an iPad

Older daughter had three books. One is available electronically and the other two were not.

So out of six books I could get all of them at my small branch library and I can only get one of them on the iPhone.

every library has at least one book that is not available on an iPhone.. or Kindle.. or computer.
and every book that is available to you on your iPhone is also available to you in the library. not from the library, but in the library. you can order any iBookstore or Kindle book you want from inside the library and we won't interfere. you can use our wireless network to do it. and if you're interested in a "good" book that the library has the ability to purchase for its collection, it might do it. and if you bring 20 friends, we'll also purchase that "bad" book all of you demand we get.

but there are books that are not on your phone. and libraries have those, too. so we win.

the problem with these theories is that they never end. if we offered every ebook, they would then claim that libraries are doomed because we don't stream episodes of Arrested Development. and if we had all the streaming video available, they'd say we don't have something else.

libraries need to look to their mission whenever these assholes appear with their boogeyman prophesies. even if I devoted our entire budget to ebooks, our library still couldn't satisfy them. yet we'd be broke.

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