Thursday, February 11, 2010

Toward the Primarily Digital Library

In the closing paragraph of her book A is for American (Knopf, 2002), Jill Lepore observes that, “in the transformation from a ‘republic of letters’ to a ‘digital economy,’ we’ve replaced characters with numbers” (196).

So yesterday there appeared (at least) three articles on the future of printed books and physical libraries.

Fortune asked “10 media and tech luminaries” what becomes of the printed word? There is a consensus that printed newspapers are doomed. What happens with printed books is less clear.

More interesting was The New York Times’ question: “Do School Libraries Need [Printed] Books?” Those surveyed said:
James Tracy (headmaster, Cushing Academy): No: “This freed up our beautiful library space to be used in a new way … [teachers and students] need more help from librarians to navigate these [digital] resources, so we have also increased our library staff by 25 percent.”

Matthew G. Kirschenbaum (English professor, University of Maryland): Yes.” Not everything is digitized yet, nor soon will be. A screen is less conducive to deep concentration than the stillness of the page. Bits are brittle … Books, precisely because of their (literally) bounded limitations, teach us to ask questions that are no less essential for the databases and deep archives of the online world … knowledge is proximate.”

Liz Gray (library director, Dana Hall School): Yes: “no online collection can replace the unique collection of resources that I have built over a period of years to serve the specific needs of my students, faculty and curriculum … [libraries] keep up with new technologies but we also hold on to the things that work well.”

Nicholas Carr (author, “The Big Switch”): Yes: “emptying our libraries of books is not an example of progress. It’s an example of regress … the book focuses our attention, encouraging the kind of immersion in a story or an argument that promotes deep comprehension and deep learning … the medium matters.”

William Powers (author, “Hamlet’s BlackBerry”): Yes: “The idea that books are outdated is based on a common misconception: the belief that new technologies automatically render existing ones obsolete … What are often considered the weaknesses of the old-fashioned book are in some ways its strengths.”
Finally, an article over at Inside Higher Ed, “E-Library Economics,” discussed two new studies that examine the digital transformation of academic libraries:
those academics who exalt the serendipitous pastime of browsing through endless stacks may be overcome by budget-minded administrators as new research brings the relative costs of electronic-oriented libraries versus traditional ones into focus and best practices begin to emerge from experiments in library design.
One commenter, Concerned Scholar, who thinks that librarians do not “want libraries to continue to be archives for future generations,” points out three important issues that must be kept in mind when discussing digital library materials:

  1. Selection, which includes enduring value (beyond current interest).
  2. Ownership, which impacts control of access (immediate and long-term).
  3. Stewardship, which involves the commitment to long-term preservation.