"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 Clinging to an outdated vision of libraries is in fact the best recipe for making them look hopelessly obsolescent to the men and women who control their budgets...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.