Libraries and Librarians In A Digital Future: Where Do We Fit?

Submitted by Blake on Sat, 10/08/2005 - 01:39

I have recently become convinced our future is digital. After following the Google and The Illiterate Monks thread, and reading "How Transistor Radios and Web (and Newspapers and Hi-Fi radio) are Alike" I believe I can see a small bit of the future, and it's not paper based. I'm not even sure I can see a place for libraries. It's not that I want the future to be like this, I believe, as the old saying goes, there is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to a digital future.

For years I've been on the fence when it comes to our digital future. I've always bought into the assumption that books are here to stay. That libraries will always have a place. That 100 years from now we'll still want to browse the stacks to see what's related. I think I've fallen off that fence, and landed on the side with the digitalists. I've chosen sides based on things I've read from both the crumugednons like Gorman, and the many techno-freaks on the other side. I don't know what this means for the millions of books we hold currently. I don't know what this means for the future of libraries & librarians, nor do I know what, if anything, we can do to ensure we're still around in 20 years, but below I'll share with you why I've moved from fence sitter, to digitalist.The biggest threat we're facing isn't one of content, certainly we have the goods, but rather it's the package. Or, like Chrystie Wrote, these new tools are replacing the library for people's daily information needs. Society in general, and younger people in particular, are moving away from the printed word, our bread and butter for a century or two now, and away from libraries, for a number of reasons. Why should they care about or use print? They can't put it on their iPod. They can't put it on their laptop. And they can't view it on a screen. They get most of the answers they need from Google. This is the essence of my argument. If most people are able to "get served" elsewhere, why do they need a book, a library, or a librarian?

It doesn't matter if you think digital isn't as stable as print. It doesn't matter if you think it's impossible to read for extended periods of time on electronic media. It doesn't matter if you think Google isn't meeting their needs. And it certainly doesn't matter if you think books are more convenient. Some of those things may be true today, but none of them will be true in 10 years.

You can't search on printed book. If the index missed what you're looking for, you'll need to do some digging. You can't hyperlink from a printed page. And you'll never fit more than one printed book into, well, a printed book. All those things you think are so great about print are the same things millions of kids think is completely wrong. The technology exists now to realistically begin moving away from print, not because it's just the latest gizmo fad, but because it's going to be cheaper, faster, easier, AND just as stable as, and just as good, if not better than, print. We'll have the ability to make connections between writings that have never been seen before. We'll be able to search and research across millions of "books" to find information in ways that will change how we learn. We'll be able to carry around more than one book in a single reader.

The flexibility afforded by digital devices is the biggest selling point for me. I can carry around 1,000 books on a single device. If the print is too small, I can make it bigger. If the print is too large, I can make it smaller. And of course, you can't grep a dead tree. I can search through one or 100 books at once to find a word of phrase. If I'm tired I can have my reader read to me, and if the book is written in Spanish, it will translate for me.

And what of the fragile nature of digital media? LOCKSS! Lots Of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe. Digital archives are now measured in PETAbytes. We reached the point of no return years ago. With backups on tapes, optical media, flash media, and hard drives, our bytes are as safe as or more safe than paper ever was. Digital records are now as permanent as paper.

So will we really need to have buildings filled with paper copies of knowledge? If everything produced in the future is available electronically, will we print and store copies? In 10 years will libraries stop adding new print items and become archives of printed works from "the good old days?" If I had all the answers I might be able to make myself rich and famous. My guess is our roles as librarians will change very little. We'll still provide access to paid databases (assuming the still exist). We'll teach and educate. And we'll store and provide access to information. I now think that will be largely stored electronically. But what of Google, et. al, will they replace even our role as teachers because they'll be so easy to use?

Gorman apparently spent his LITA keynote comparing real cataloging with web indexing. This seems to me, a futile pursuit, like comparing apples and organs. Surely he must understand the different between pre and post coordinate indexing. Each system in it's current form has strengths and weaknesses. Our job is to teach people how to use each tool, and to guide them to the best sources for their search. But while precoordinated indexing won't change much in the future, post is growing by leaps and bounds each year. Picking apart the problems with Google is easy. Looking at how far Google has come in just a few years should be shocking, and thinking about where they will be in 5 or ten years should be frightening. No doubt they have dozens of brilliant minds finding solutions to each and every problem libraries love to waggle their fingers at. While we wrestle with our budgets, they hire 10 new genius level employees a day.

Google and all the other technologies out there are in their "TR-1" stage right now. Spreading FUD about beta level technologies in their infancy doesn't elevate libraries or librarians, it makes us look even more antiquated than we're all ready perceived (Go ahead, ask any teenager). Like the radio manufacturers from the article, we've "built our fortunes" and many of us don't see the value in many new technologies because they are currently inferior. Our goals should be to elevate our position without trying to denigrate our "competition." We must show the world what we can do, and how we work with technology. All these technologies are here to stay, and if we want the same to be said for libraries, we need to work harder to move our selves up, without putting others down.

The common perception that newer/faster/cheaper is always better is what will drive the move to a digital world. Storing knowledge in traditional printed books will probably still have a place, but I am convinced within a decade we will have the tools that will allow the majority of people that can afford it, and the desire, the ability to buy, read, and store all the books they want, without paper. Librarians are terrible marketers, and we've failed miserably trying to maintain an image of relevance. It may be print really is a superior format for many things, but we'll never be able to convince enough people to make a lasting impression. How can we if the new devices out perform print for most peoples needs?

Imagine a book sized device that allows you to store 1,000 books. You can flip pages easily, the screen is crisp, well lit, and fully adjustable. It will read out loud to you. You can click on any word and be brought to a Wikipedia entry. If you want, it will let you check your email, and browse the web.

So now is your chance to poke holes in my dream. First, think about where you think we'll be in 10 years, and then tell me I'm wrong. Think about where computers, Google and Ebooks will be. Tell me people will always prefer print. Tell me it's more stable, easier to store, lasts for centuries and is easier to handle. Tell me DRM and copyright issues will kill many new devices usefulness. Tell me people don't learn as well from electronics as they do from print. On second thought, don't tell me all that, I've been hearing it for years.

Tell me what you're going to do that will change not just my mind, but the minds of the people we are trying to serve. Tell me how you'll convince the people that we'll need to support libraries in 10 years that we're worth it. Tell me how I can convince my 13 year old nieces that when they're in college they'll need librarians to help them learn. Convince me all these new tools are not replacing the library for many people's daily information needs.