The foundation of libraries and librarianship has shifted dramatically over the last decade or so.  Digital resources provide access to seemingly boundless quantities of information, virtually untethered to physical repositories.  The internet has seemingly built a library in every modem and made every user a librarian.

While this prompts some observers to cast the future of libraries into question, in reality we’re facing remarkable opportunities to move forward into a new era of libraries and librarianship.  Because libraries no longer have to worry as much about being the world’s bookshelf, they have the freedom to find new ways to serve their patrons.  Why should it matter if the results don’t resemble our traditional view of libraries?

Proclaiming the End of Libraries

MG Siegler’s TechCrunch article, “The End of Libraries“, represents only the most recent attempt to write off the future of libraries.  The library that Siegler feels obligated to mourn is full of shelves of books; it’s the nostalgic vision of a place from his youth that no longer seems relevant.  However, that sort of library has been slowly receding for quite some time now, as computers and online resources have replaced physical volumes.  Rather than destroying libraries, the internet makes many new services possible.  Libraries increasingly offer technology assistance and training to a broad constituency and their computers are often swamped by patrons.

In terms of ebooks, Siegler’s other culprit, the library has become stuck in the midst of a struggle between writers, readers, and publishers that echoes the upheaval of the music industry.  Whereas Napster and other file-sharing services turned MP3s into effectively free commodities for their audiences, ebooks remain tightly controlled products despite their increasing presence in BitTorrent-ing sites.

I fully understand publishers’ desire to avoid the situation where their products become too expensive to be free and too free to be expensive, but there has to be a way to do so that doesn’t harm libraries and readers.  Art Brodsky’s Wired article, which Siegler cites heavily, represents more of a plea for affordable content than a warning flare for the future of libraries.  It will only strengthen libraries if, as Brodsky advocates,  publishers and authors allow ebooks to fulfill their potential for increasing access to reading material.  The key here is to learn from the music industry–would publishers rather have a spike in illegal downloads or eliminate the artificial scarcity imposed by ebook lending services?

A Way Forward?

Siegler covers several worthy futures for libraries in his article, and summarily dismisses each one.  What becomes clear is that Siegler–like many observers–remains moored on the traditional book-centric vision of libraries, and as such is unable to see a future for such institutions.  After predicting that only the largest libraries will survive,  Siegler claims that “other spaces currently known as libraries may live on as cultural and/or learning centers.”  Haven’t libraries always been cultural and learning centers?  What was the purpose of all those books, if not as tools for cultural and intellectual exploration?  In looking at a library without books, do its essential functions change?

BiblioTech, America’s first bookless public library opened its doors last month, but this should hardly be surprising–futurists saw it coming as early as 1978.  This digital library services a community in which 75% of the population doesn’t have an internet connection at home.  It circulates ebooks, lends e-readers, and provides a number of other services and spaces–much like a traditional library.  The same standards of learning and cultural uplift (however defined) still apply.  How is the Bibliotech any less of a library for not having books?  Although the tools of our exploration are evolving away from physical books, our inquisitiveness remains undiminished.

Same Function, Different Face

While it’s easy to get carried away and proclaim “the end of libraries” or even call for “new librarianship,” in essence what we’re experiencing is simply a major evolution of libraries and librarianship.  Their functions haven’t changed, but their faces have.  The development of the printing press had a transformative impact on libraries back in the fifteenth century and we’re presently in the midst of a similar technological revolution.  Increased access to information won’t be the end of libraries now any more than it was five hundred years ago.

The young internet itself experienced a crisis during the dot-com bust of the late 1990s–the way forward involved a radical rethinking of the uses and implications of the world wide web.  Why can’t libraries benefit from a similar creative evolution?  The solutions need not be fixed, but can themselves be continually evolving.

As author Amy Tan reminds us, “A library is not simply a repository of books, it is the symbol and center of our culture – a door and a window for those who might not otherwise have such doors and windows.”

What do you think?  Do libraries have a future?  If so, what will it look like?  If not, what will be their demise?  Be a part of the discussion in the comment section below.