Will library buildings and library catalogs survive the web?
Some weeks ago a couple of issues appeared in the twitter/blogosphere (or at least MY twitter/blogoshere) related to the future of the library in this digital era.
- There was the Espresso book machine that prints books on demand on location, which led to questions like: “apart from influencing publishing and book shops, what does this mean for libraries?“.
- There was a Twitter discussion about “will we still need library buildings?“.
- There was another blog post about the future of library catalogs by Edwin Mijnsbergen (in Dutch) that asked the question of the value of library catalogs in relation to web2.0 and the new emerging semantic web.
This made me start thinking about a question that concerns us all: is there a future for the library as we know it?
To begin with, what is a library anyway?
For ages, since the beginning of history, up until some 15 years ago, a library was an institution characterised by:
- a physical collection of printed and handwritten material
- a physical location, a building, to store the collection
- a physical printed or handwritten on site catalog
- on location searching and finding of information sources using the catalog
- on site requesting, delivery, reading, lending and returning of material
- a staff of trained librarians to catalog the collection and assist patrons
The central concept here is of course the collection. That is the “raison d’être” of a library. The purpose of library building, catalog and librarians is to give people access to the collection, and provide them with the information they need.
Clearly, because of the physical nature of the collection and the information transmission process the library needed to be a building with collection and catalog inside it. People had to go there to find and get the publications they needed.
If collections and the transmission of information were completely digital, then the reason for a physical location to go to for finding and getting publications would not exist anymore. Currently one of these conditions has been met fully and the other one partly. The transmission of information can take place in a completely digital way. Most new scientific publications are born digital (e-Journals, e-Books), and a large number of digitisation projects are taking care of making digital copies of existing print material.
Searching for items in a library’s collection is already taking place remotely through OPACs and other online tools almost everywhere. A large part of these collections can be accessed digitally. Only in case a patron wants to read or borrow a printed book or journal, he or she has to go the library building to fetch it.
All this seems to lead to the conclusion that the library may be slowly moving away from a physical presence to a digital one.
But there is something else to be considered here, that reaches beyond the limits of one library. In my view the crucial notion here is again the collection.
In my post Collection 2.0 I argue that in this digital information age a library’s collection is everything a library has access to as opposed to the old concept of everything a library owns. This means in theory that every library could have access to the same digital objects of information available on the web, but also to each other’s print objects through ILL. There will be no physically limited collection only available in one library anymore, just one large global collection.
In this case, there is not only no need for people to go to a specific library for an item in its collection, but also there is no need to search for items using a specific library’s catalog.
Now you may say that people like going to a library building and browse through the stacks. That may still be true for some, but in general, as I argue in my post “Open Stack 2.0“, the new Open Stack is the Web.
In the future there will be collections, but not physical ones (except of course for the existing ones with items that are not allowed to leave the library location). We will see virtual subject collections, determined by classifications and keywords assigned both by professionals and non-professionals.
On a parallel level there will be virtual catalogs, which are views on virtual collections defined by subjects on different levels and in different locations: global, local, subject-oriented, etc. These virtual collections and catalogs will be determined and maintained by a great number of different groups of people and institutions (commercial and non-commercial). One of these groups can still be a library. As Patrick Vanhoucke observed on Twitter (in Dutch): “We have to let go of the idea of the library as a building; the ‘library’ is the network of librarians“. These virtual groups of people may be identical to what is getting known more and more as “tribes“.
Having said all this, of course there will still be occurrences of libraries as buildings and as physical locations for collections. Institutions like the Library of Congress will not just vanish into thin air. Even if all print items have been digitised, print items will still be wanted for a number of reasons: research, art, among others. Libraries can have different functions, like archives, museums, etc. and still be named “libraries” too.
Library buildings can transform into other types of locations: in universities they can become meeting places and study facilities, including free wifi and Starbucks coffee. Public libraries can shift focus to becoming centres of discovery and (educational) gaming. Anything is possible.
It’s obvious that libraries obey the same laws of historical development as any other social institution or phenomenon. The way that information is found and processed is determined, or at least influenced, by the status of technological development. And I am not saying that all development is technology driven! This is not the place for a philosophy on history, economics and society.
Some historical parallels to illustrate the situation that libraries are facing:
- writing: inscribing clay tablets > scratching ink on paper > printing (multiplication, re-usability) > typewriter > computer/printer (digital multiplication and re-usability!) > digital only (computer files, blogs, e-journal, e-books)
- consumption of music: attending live performance on location > listening to radio broadcast > playing purchased recordings (vinyl, cassettes, cd, dvd) > make home recordings > play digital music with mp3/personal audio > listen to digital music online
From these examples it’s perfectly clear that new developments do not automatically make the old ways disappear! Prevailing practices can coexist with “outdated” ways of doing things. Libraries may still have a future.
In the end it comes down to these questions:
- Will libraries cease to exist, simply because they no longer serve the purpose of providing access to information?
- Are libraries engaged in a rear guard fight?
- Will libraries become tourist attractions?
- Will libraries adapt to the changing world and shift focus to serve other, related purposes?
- Are professional librarian skills useful in a digital information world?
I do not know what will happen with libraries. What do you think?