Your Library Will Go On… But…

Some time ago, this little fascinating article rolled through one of the sites I frequent talking about a theory that ultra-rare celestial alignment led to a much larger than normal high tide that could have refloated larger icebergs that eventually made their way into the path of the Titanic. The part that really gets me is that this event happened on January 4th, a full three months before that night in April. Ironically, at the same time the lifeboats were being installed on the ship, its demise had begun its journey slowly off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. I’ve always had a fascination with the convergence of events  and how people and things come together all in the same place at once. If not for this particular event at this particular time of the year, the ship would be a modest entry in historical ship construction books. James Cameron’s fame and fortune might be linked to a movie called Lusitania.

It’s this preoccupation with convergence that has me looking at some of the technologies of the past fifteen or so years that will have significant impact (no pun intended) on libraries in the next few years. While there is no killer iceberg that will sink the Library ship, I do see some technologies that are knocking off particular aspects that have been maintained by the library over the years.

Take the development of the internet search engine which started years ago with names like Alta Vista and Webcrawler. Combined with the content that has been added over time, it has effectively killed off the Trivial Pursuit portion of ready reference. You don’t need to consult with Encyclopedia of Left Handed Victorian Irish Farmers when a simply query in Google or Bing can bring back the answer faster than you can lumber out of the reference desk chair. Even mid ranged questions with more in-depth answers can be handled in the same manner depending on the topic, thus depleting some of the inquiries to the reference desk being either (1) unable to search for themselves, (2) announce that they are too lazy and want you to look it up for them, or (3) actually require some expertise to sift through the answers to find credible results. Even while (3) justifies the existence of a reference desk, the first two do not pose a strong case for its continued purpose in answering inquiries.

The search engine has killed off some of the more mundane reference desk inquiries, shifting it to a faster DIY usage. This is not a bad thing since it promotes self sufficiency, but it represents an aspect of the traditional library service that has fallen victim to one of these smaller proverbial icebergs.

Are there other icebergs you see that are chipping away at the ole Library vessel here? What developments are finally coming into their own now and replacing or reducing a previous library aspect?

7 thoughts on “Your Library Will Go On… But…

  1. I think easier Internet accessible computers and ubiquitous wi-fi are digging into our patronage, too. Computer usage is down, everywhere except the chronically unemployed and homeless. And even some of them have Internet through smartphones, tablets and ereaders.

    • Yeah, free Wifi is becoming a customer expectation at retail locations. It’s why people opt to go to Starbucks for study space rather than the library. Plus, they tend to be more lenient on their food and drink policy.

  2. I think that librarians are slowly ceding their collection development responsibilities to vendors like Overdrive, Gale, and OneClickDigital. One a grand scale, the acquisitions are limited to available digital books, which is nothing compared to the size of even a medium/small library. For example, currently my system (County of Los Angeles) has a total of 9,151 unique books in ePub format on Overdrive. This is for the whole system, compared to my one relatively large branch which has something like 26,000 volumes.

    But even worse is that the digital materials iceberg is also sinking the library’s interface. In the library, we arrange what our shelves and displays look like. Online, vendors create the interface our patrons see, and frankly, my sense is that it is a poor browsing experience. An extremist might ask, what is a library’s website for except as a list of databases it subscribes to?

  3. Library as a place is certainly open to a different understanding. If people don’t need to come to the library to access the resources then do we need libraries as a place? The issue of digital divide is never far from the heart of this issue. Are libraries the canary in coal mine? If libraries go, are we turning everything over to a society of haves and have-nots? And moving even closer to where commerce is the tail that wags the dog? If pay for access (direct or indirect) is the way to access information then who controls the information? Do we have to pay for everything as an individual consumer (music, movies, books) or is the sharing resources model still valid?

  4. A perhaps looming iceberg whose mass is mostly hidden is Amazon’s Prime’s lending library. If Amazon is able to cut more deals or if other companies start similar services, the ability to essentially “rent” books may further erode some of the library’s primary functions (also assuming that eBooks and eReaders continue to see growth). This is all the more reason for libraries to get eBook lending right.

    • I don’t see Amazon’s lending as being a threat, but I do see it as being parallel to our mission. It’s just from a business perspective. What would it mean over time? Would libraries give up the book lending business and focus on internet access? That’s where I see that road leading.

      • Yeah, that is essentially what I meant. Not Amazon specifically, but if similar services start to catch on, over time. If the rise of the Internet has put the function of libraries into question for some policy makers, what would commercial eBook lending do (if it saw widespread use)? For some reason I see a monthly/yearly fee to easily borrow books over the cloud as a great threat; like it is directly targeting what libraries do.

        Focusing on the Internet has always been a problem for me because it focuses on one demographic, specifically, those who can not afford computers or internet at home (or maybe I am wrong about who comes to the library to use the computers. I don’t know those numbers) . Book lending always seemed to have a wider appeal. If we focus on Internet access does that move the library mission from community place and assest to charity (only providing information access to those who can’t afford it from home)? If the library no longer lends books or provides reference service, what is the community incentive to come to the library? (this is really just my doomsday scenario. The relationship between a library and its community is much more complex than that. But I do worry about how we justify our existence as these technologies become ubiquitous).

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