Home Series The Problem with Print in a Digital Age

Part V: Books or Bytes? Looking at the Library of the Future

I like the way the pages feel and sound when you turn them and the way some books smell warm from decades of paper decay beneath the whorls imprinted from generations of turning, penciled notes in the margin small and fading. (Robert Andropolis)

Depending on how old you are, this little excerpt either fills you with the nostalgic memory of enjoying an old library book… or the impact of this writing is entirely lost on you. During this Digital Age, libraries themselves risk becoming objects of nostalgia — the deadly step right before irrelevance, and right after failure to transform.

With local governments cutting back on hours or closing down branches, librarians across the country are feeling squeezed by shrinking budgets and yet greater demand for their services. In order to keep their doors open and their services viable, libraries are learning how to modernize with less.

According to the 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, more than two-thirds of this country’s 9,000 libraries are now lending out e-books. The Portage Library Consortium recently launched Axis 360. This new e-book service is the result of a partnership among Kent Free Library, Reed Memorial Library, and Portage County District Library. It provides e-book titles downloadable from any of the home pages of the mentioned local library websites.

The new PCDL website bears evidence of the library’s own digital evolution. The homepage directs browsers to many options, including accessing its mobile version; logging onto a personal account; downloading e-books and audio books; accessing KnowItNow, Ohio’s online reference service; accessing library databases from home; paying fines online; registering for computer training or for online newsletters; signing up for email notices; reading digital edition magazines; and joining PCDL on Facebook.

Before the onset of the internet, libraries were all about books. But the confluence of digitization and a prolonged recession has redirected libraries’ focus to the needs of library users.

In addition to books, periodicals, music and movies, libraries provide people with computer usage, WI-FI, lectures, debates, literacy services, newspapers, genealogy and local history resources — all free and accessible.

Americans need help navigating a way forward — to find work or explore a new career path. As a result, people are rediscovering their local libraries as a place to begin their journeys.

Today, according to Time.com, more than 70 percent of all libraries offer free internet access, and in a struggling economy where even applications for dishwashing jobs must be filled out online, that’s a valuable public service. An estimated 30 million Americans rely on libraries to find a job. For hopeful entrepreneurs, libraries provide free access to otherwise costly business databases like LexisNexis. Two years ago, the OCLC library consortium reported that library usage increased for 36 million Americans. All told, 69 percent of Americans currently use public libraries.

As promising as all this is, unsolved problems remain with libraries going digital. Digital media tend to be much less durable than, for instance, the Sumerian stone tablets that were created long before the birth of Christ and remain legible today. The estimated life of a CD range from 20 to 300 years, with cheap ones failing in a year or two. Digital media are new enough that nobody really knows how long they will last, especially considering variations in manufacturing, handling and labeling.

The main problems associated with digital libraries are wrapped up in archiving. If, in 100 years people can still read this article, we’ll have solved the problem. The underlying issue is that digital data is unintelligible to the naked eye.

According to The Digital Library by Daniel Akst, any article written in Microsoft Word “is really just a series of ones and zeroes that depend on hardware and software for decoding.” Compound that with the rapid rate of progress—and obsolescence—in the computer industry, and you begin to see what makes archiving digital information a nearly impossible task. “It is only slightly facetious,” writes RAND researcher Jeff Rothenberg, “to say that digital information lasts forever—or five years, whichever comes first.”

What’s the long-term solution? We don’t know yet, but proposals include migration (converting digital data to the latest format whenever necessary); encapsulation (whereby digital “objects” such as letters and videos could include instructions for how to read them); and emulation (writing software to prompt a new system to act like an older one in order to run old software).

The future of archiving and the future of libraries are inextricably connected. “What libraries may be like in the future is important for anyone who cares about access to knowledge and information,” Akst writes. “To the extent an informed citizenry sustains a free society, democracy itself might be said to rest at least partly on the edifice of the library.”

But there’s no assurance that the library of tomorrow will even involve an actual building. Digital technology raises foundational questions about what a library is for, how it functions, what should be in it, and whether it’s a place or an idea. What does it mean to lend a book when it exists only electronically? How many research libraries are needed when collections become digitized—and are therefore accessible anywhere? Will books someday vanish altogether?

Not likely. Paper and print still endure, though not as the powerhouses they once were. Books, newspapers and magazines will continue, whether they are printed on paper or not. But the ultimate destiny of libraries—and of the information they hold—looks digital.