Libraries have a problem. An awesome problem.
In the abstract, the purpose of a library is to collect and make information available. The information may be entertaining or practical or neither or both, but in general the role of the library has historically been to protect in disseminate information. In particular, there is a longstanding tradition of public libraries that give away this information for free.
The problem is that information has become cheap. With the rise of the Internet, more and more research in scientific journals, for example, is put online. So the need to house tens of thousands of journals, most of which will rarely if ever be touched, is diminishing. Thanks to sites like Project Gutenberg, and more recently Google Books, the need to carry rights free material in a library is also diminished. With the new non-shitty generation of eReaders like the Kindle and Nook, even the advantage of holding a hardcopy is gone. Moving forward, it’s likely eReader prices (if they follow their current trend) will become either free or extremely cheap for basic versions.
It stands to reason that libraries are going to experience some big changes. I’ve felt conflicted over this. I once talked to a library employee who told me they regularly would toss out old 19th century reference books of things like railroad maps and such. One part of me feels like this is a loss – there’s something inherently charming about older books, and it seems a shame to decide they’re garbage. On the other hand, these are books that just sit and gather dust while more useful information could be occupying its space. The fact that a list of agricultural output from 1830, which is available online, is sitting in that library could mean that there are fewer copies of Dickens or math books. The aesthetics of book geeks are, sadly, not enough to justify the space many of these lovely books occupy.
It’s easy to imagine that, in the future, it will become cheaper to give everyone a Kindle and a stipend than to physically house all these thousands of books. At first blush, this sounds entirely desirable
And yet… if you’re like me, you feel this as a loss. So, let’s consider what libraries do that would not be addressed by having everyone own a Kindle.
First, libraries have become a place where community services are provided. Many libraries teach literacy, educate adults in computer usage, hold storytelling for children, act as community art galleries, act as auditoria for visiting writers, and lots of other stuff we generally consider valuable. They serve lots of real functions beyond just housing and organizing books.
Second, they still offer free access to a lot of books you can’t get. In the United States, copyright extends 70 years beyond the death of the author. So, for example, if I live to see 2050 and I wish to restrict access, my books will not be rights free until 2120. Libraries are a nice cultural institution that allows readers to route around this problem.
Third, they give access to books most people couldn’t afford or which won’t fit on an eReader. For example, large books of art or copies of illuminated Medieval manuscripts.
Fourth, libraries provide a nice work space. They tend to be a quiet place with a lot of seating and free wifi. If you’re an uberdork like me, you know how useful this can be.
Last, by still quite important, libraries provide an inspirational space. A good library doesn’t just surround you with all the great works of history – it has a certain intellectual aesthetic even in its smell and touch. Many will have great paintings or architecture in addition to the books they house. This may seem like a trivial point, but I don’t think it should be forgotten. I myself have overcome writer’s block many times simply by walking around the library and looking at the various titles. Sometimes I will crack an astronomy journal from the 40s just to see how different it was. That sort of browsing and exploring might be hard to recreate online.
That’s a lot of good stuff, and I think there’s a decent chance it’ll get killed by inexorable market forces if libraries don’t adapt.
So, with that in mind, I’d like to propose some ideas I think would help adapt libraries to the modern set of needs while maintaining what is essential about them.
Instead of housing shit-tons of books, they should have eReaders and a collection of rare books, as well as books that don’t transmit to eReaders well, such as very large books. Assuming eReaders get so cheap they’re essentially free at some point in the near future, they would basically be like library cards. You sign up, get your special eReader, and you’re good to go. For copyright reasons, and since you’re not paying, I think having strong DRM would be perfectly fine. You could say “We’ve uploaded Moby Dick and The Hunger Games to your reader. The first is yours to keep. The second will self-delete in 2 weeks.” This would allow every library to have a vast book selection, and would simultaneously free up tons of space for works that are rare or not friendly to eReaders.
In addition, you could house all those copyrighted books still. By not needing to carry reference manuals and rights free books, you’d free up a lot of space for people who still want to use hardcopy.
Absolutely keep all the community services. The more a library can serve as a community center, the better for that community.
New Community Services
They could also provide new communal services. One of the really great things about a library 50 years ago was that it was a way to pool resources so that everyone could benefit. Nowadays, those resources have become cheap. BUT, there are still things that would provide similar benefits, but which individuals can’t purchase.
For example, what if you provided a community hackerspace at the library? That is, you provide some basic engineering tools, along with a few more expensive ones like 3D printers or CNC machines? Just like people borrow books, they could borrow time on machines. This could be nicely combined with the communal services – local people could teach engineering techniques.
Building on this, you could also provide some enrichment services of a scientific nature. For example, for about a thousand dollars, you can purchase a telescope good enough to see Saturn’s shape on the right night. For a few hundred dollars you can purchase a microscope. For a few thousand dollars, you can get a lot of chemistry equipment. Resources like this would be a great opportunity for precocious kids whose parents can’t afford this kind of equipment, or for curious adults who’ve never considered looking at the stars on a clear night.
I mention these ideas not just because I think they’re neato. I think they play the role libraries were meant to serve – pooling resources to benefit people who want to self educate. It’s nowadays less important to communally pay for books. Books are cheaper and information is close to free. It used to cost thousands to get a nice encyclopedia. Now, you have a superior one for free online. So, why not re-purpose that community money to self-education services that are not yet cheap, like simple scientific and technical equipment.
Part of why it’d be useful to continue housing older rarer books is that you could keep some of the flavor of a library. I suspect the desire to handle a traditional book is mostly cultural, but the desire to be in a bookish space may be a bit deeper. It seems to me that people tend to appreciate older architecture for example when it comes to library space. A library should be efficient, but not too clinical. By keeping old books and big books and continuing to house art, you can maintain the inspirational aspect of a library while modernizing and adapting it to its new roles.
More Work Space
I’ve lived on a number of campuses at this point, and I’ve noticed something. Older libraries tend to have worse work space. This isn’t universally true, but often is. Additionally, what space there is in old libraries often will have mediocre electrical and wifi access. Older libraries no doubt had to focus on books because that was their primary purpose. If housing books shifts from being primary, it makes sense that space for work should open up and be more amenable to people carrying laptops and tablets.
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Those are just a few ideas I’ve been mentally kicking around. Whenever new technology comes along, we seem to get these unfortunate factions of those who wish to change nothing and those who think everything has already changed. The essential purpose of the library is to house information, but a good library also carries with it many quiet invisible charms, which should also be preserved.
There is a way in which a library acts as a sort of secular temple – a place to wrap oneself in the grand trappings Shakespeare and Einstein and Voltaire and Hemingway. A good library gives you the right data, but also acquaints you with all its ghosts. The old way of things will no doubt change, and that is no doubt for the best. But let’s not give up the ghosts!