[Paleopsych] Technology Review: The Death of Libraries?

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Fri Apr 15 20:24:27 UTC 2005

The Death of Libraries?

    By TR Staff May 2005

    At most libraries, the hand-typed card catalogues thumbed by
    generations of patrons have been supplanted by electronic indexes
    accessed via PCs locally or over the Web. Now that Google has agreed
    to scan millions of books from five major libraries and to make their
    contents searchable on the Web--a project that experts say is likely
    to yield spinoff technologies that drastically lower the costs of
    digitization and catalyze similar efforts worldwide--can the
    disappearance of libraries themselves be far behind?

    Most librarians say no, as our story "The Infinite Library," on page
    54, reports. Whatever the form in which book content is stored,
    librarians believe, people will still come to libraries for expert
    help finding information, for public access to the Internet, or for
    the comfortable atmosphere libraries provide for reading and
    reflection. And there will always be a need, professionals point out,
    for places that preserve traditional paper books.

    All of that may be true. But there is still room to wonder how
    libraries will trump the expediency of being able to download a whole
    book over the Web, at little or no cost, instead of schlepping to the
    library. Print-on-demand services are spreading fast (see "The Future
    of Books," January 2005), and electronic reading devices will continue
    to improve until they rival the resolution and usability of regular
    books. At that point, the only burning reason for a physical trip to
    the library will be to see a copy of a needed book that has not yet
    been digitized, or that has been digitized but is not downloadable due
    to copyright restrictions.

    So in reality, the future of libraries may rest on just two factors:
    the rate at which digitization and display technologies advance, and
    the evolution of laws and practices regarding copyrights. In the
    United States, books published before January 1, 1923, are in the
    public domain and can be copied and redistributed by anyone, free of
    charge. At the same time, many books written in the past five to eight
    years have been published in both print and electronic form, and
    libraries have arranged with publishers to make some of these new
    e-books available for loan. (Borrowed e-books typically "expire,"
    becoming unreadable after a certain period.) It's arranging access to
    the huge number of in-between books--those published between 1923 and
    the late 1990s--that is the critical issue.

    If publishers and authors maintain their tight control on these books
    after they are scanned, public libraries will still have an important
    place as a free source for them, even if they can loan out only a few
    electronic copies at a time. On the other hand, if Google and others
    can arrange with publishers and authors to allow low-cost downloads of
    whole books--a likely prospect, seeing that it gives publishers a new
    way to squeeze revenues from their backlists--then libraries will
    inevitably recede in importance. It's a simple matter of convenience:
    free or low-cost access to digital books will make libraries more
    dispensable. Librarianship isn't about to disappear as a profession.
    But if librarians want a steady supply of patrons, they'll need to
    find ways to keep their institutions relevant in the digital age.

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