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In the Digital World, What is the Future of the Institutional Library?

By Edward Nawotka

Today’s lead story looks at life at a prison library.

Numerous institutions — prisons, hospitals, law firms, magazines, intelligence agencies — have their own libraries and archives. Increasingly, these are eliminated to save office space and a eliminate what are seen as unnecessary expenses, particularly in an era when seemingly everything can be found via a simple “Google” search. But is that a mistake? What is being lost? History, context, identity even?

When I started at Publishers Weekly magazine in 1999 as an associate editor, the magazine employed two librarians and the archives took up several hundred square feet of floor space. The shelves were filled with volumes, books, collections, archives, some of which dated back more than a hundred years to the start of the magazine, and all to do with book publishing.

Later, when the magazine moved and a librarian retired, the library itself was reduced to a significantly smaller space (on a different floor of the building), many of the volumes were sold off, and the remaining librarian put on part-time. By the time I left in 2004, there was no librarian and the scant archives that remained were sequestered to a tiny conference room (albeit, on the same floor).

As a researcher, particularly when starting out, I found those archives — many of which were clippings from old magazines kept in manila envelopes — invaluable. When they were gone, it was impossible to reference those early pieces of history, some of which provided important context for developing stories. Today, it’s all-but- impossible to find those same articles online.

What is being lost with with the loss of these institutional libraries? The integrity of information is one: as anything can be altered or even deleted with the touch of a button. But there’s also institutional memory (which like human memory, is fallible), but provides a sense of identity and sometimes — in the best cases — as sense of history and purpose.

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Posted October 21, 2010 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    What is also a touch frightening about the future of institutional libraries is their failure to date to replace their physical bookshelves with their own virtual ones, relying instead on publishers to hold each library’s digital content on their own host sites (“shelves”). A senior academic librarian lamented to me only a couple of years ago that they seemed to be paying for lots of content every year and how he wished for the good old days when “libraries owned stuff”. Which is true. Part of the ongoing costs to institutional libraries is licensing for access to all the virtual shelves of content publishers now have to hold on behalf of libraries, along with the archiving, access security, and user functionality infrastructure that our library customers demand. So their future in a digital world seems to be much diminished if they remove their physical shelves as well. One wonders whether any will buck the trend and look toward buying content off publishers rather than renting it by adding digital moderated storage space to their physical space, thus placing them back in control of their own library holdings. Or perhaps we have all come too far?

  2. Posted October 21, 2010 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    As a writer, I welcome the digital revolution on the simple theory that whatever expands readership must be good for writers. As a reader, however, I share Edward Nawotka’s concerns. Speaking as a lawyer, I see problems with losing the “original” evidence. A perfect opportunity for revisionist history. I hope that as the digital revolution progresses that we remain attuned to these concerns.

  3. Roger Strouse
    Posted October 21, 2010 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    This is a rather simplistic assessment of the “special libraries” situation. Yes, perhaps those manila folders with their archived clippings were valuable, but were they valuable enough to justify the expense of maintaining them? This is a consideration that is rarely mentioned in these types of dire articles. And while it’s true that the older materials might not be online, photocopies of the originals can certainly be had through inter-library loan. What the author is really lamenting is his loss of personal convenience (whatever the cost). The reality is that archives are expensive to maintain and the sponsoring organization must balance that expense with the convenience factor of having instant access. We’re in an information era of just-in-time, wisely leaving behind what was the increasingly costly just-in-case mentality. Moreover, in truth, researchers now have desktop access to MUCH MORE primary material than they ever have in the past, so it’s disingenuous to argue that researchers are somehow becoming deprived.

  4. Posted October 23, 2010 at 3:45 am | Permalink

    I agree that thanks to the digital revolution much more primary material is available than ever before but I totally disagree with the notion that institutional libraries have no role to play in the digital age. A library is not simply a place for research! As the article on the prison libraries amply shows,libraries are a meeting place for the particular institution that maintains a library for its members, whoever they are, prisoners or workers or community citizens.

    Yes, a meeting place where people don’t just meet each other but meet BOOKS, i.e. the ideas of many, many other people, boh dead and alive who are OUTSIDE the library. From the encounter of ideas a culture progresses and a culture is not something abstract: it’s what is in everyone’s head AND in the books…

    On a more practical level: I would question first that maintaining archives is such an expensive proposition. I doubt that it is, particularly compared to the overall goal of a library as I have described it in the preceding para. Second, I think it should be a sacrosanct rule that whoever decides to cut back on book stacks and turn digital should first digitalize all the books and papers he or she is throwing out. This would ensure the library maintains ownership of its material. Because that’s the point really,isn’t it? How to turn institutional librarie digital…the point is not to do away with them!

    And now we get to the crux of the matter: how effective is a virtual/digital library in achieving the goal described in my first para.? How would it work in practice? Rows of computers from which to read? Lots of Kindles or Nooks to take away? Print-on-demand books that could circulate?

    I don’t have the answers, but it is clear right away that the technology involved is far more expensive than maintaining old-fashioned paper archives with one or a half librarian…

  5. Stephen Visagie
    Posted October 24, 2010 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    Libraries are more than book/file repositories, and librarians more than keepers of books/files. As an academic librarian, my role is to guide and teach my clients to find items using databases. Our electronic resources, including e-books, far outnumber our paper-based collections.

    I’m all for the digitization of our collections – my business is information, not books. But the library will (hopefully) always be there as a physical space – as a place to learn to find credible information, to relax, to print, etc. And a librarian will have to teach, negotiate contracts with database vendors, and provide a “dissemination of information” function, i.e. by intimately knowing the needs of his/her clients, keeping them updated on new developments in their fields.

    In this age of Information flooding or oversupply, a librarian can be your best filter, saving you time and improving your employers’ productivity. Don’t let the physical size of a library fool you. A good librarian sitting in an office could be running the biggest virtual library your institution has ever had!

  6. Posted October 24, 2010 at 5:06 pm | Permalink

    I carry in my pocket a small device which not only holds my complete library, but provides for research superior to any trip to any library within range of where I sit. It also contains my music library, and it will provide maps and details of any trip I care to make. Oh, it also provides voice commo, should I need that in a phone.

    The flow of funds from taxpayers is so automatic, and the range of civic virtue so hidebound, that we will continue to provide multiple venues for outdated resources, plus the staff to sit them, far into the future. It is easier to see what shall be done than to explain why it should be.

  7. Posted October 25, 2010 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    It doesn’t matter where the primary source material is located, as long as it is properly cataloged. The sad thing is that many libraries are being “right-sized” not only in terms of resources, but also with regard to accessing the resources.

  8. John Boutsis
    Posted November 25, 2010 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    What I am seeing here are echoes of George Orwell’s book “1984.” Where we have a Dystopian Society, which extrapolates elements of contemporary society and function as a warning against some “modern trend.” In this case print is being replaced by the digital age, and as a result, our past can literally be threatened by an oppressive regime in one form or another. What is not deemed comfortable by a regime can simply be deleted and re-written to suit their specific needs. Once again, I see a future world owned and run by huge corporations, corporate owned political lobbies controlling who gets elected, oppressing third world countries for their natural resources, eliminating the intellectual middle class, and training a future peasant working class to suit their every needs. All this is being accomplished right under our noses. Are we to sit back and allow this, or put some form of control on this new destructive modern digital trend? You be the judge!

  9. Lorraine French
    Posted December 29, 2010 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    The sad, distressing news that libraries may become digital is especially so given the constraints of prison and the prison library.Inmates are not allowed the use of the internet or computer research. They need to have the books allowed to them on
    shelves for their use, with a librarian in attendance to facilitate their use.Even Malcolm X learned the equivalent of a college degree simply by reading the dictionary and other books allowed him.

  10. Posted December 5, 2012 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    A couple of the prior comments included statements such as ‘if you are going to empty your library shelves of books, be sure to digitize them before discarding the printed versions.’ Has anyone stopped to consider the legal implications of scanning (which is another form of copying) large quantities of copyrighted materials? If you were to take this course of action, you would soon hear the banging noise of lawyers at your door, issuing legal papers against you for copyright violation. The fact is, there is a great deal of printed information in books (since 1923) that is not available in digital form and cannot be scanned/digitized without violating copyright. For better or worse, if libraries are going to live up to their mandates, they will have to retain those printed volumes until or unless publishers allow them to be digitized.

    On a related matter, the experts involved in this debate seem to make a consistent assumption that everyone has an e-reader (Kindle, Nook or some such thing) as is adept at using it. Believe it or not, there are many, including the younger generation, that do not have such devices or are not familiar with down-loading library materials onto them.

    I appreciated comments concerning the lack of permanence of digital resources and the fact that digital information is easy to alter. Digital materials lack the permanence of the paper-printed word (I had not considered that fact). A related fact is that both the digital technology of a scanned item, as well as the hardware to read e-books are constantly threatened by the potential of obsolescence.

    Those who are still sentimental about printed books realize, at some level of consciousness that reading is not a single-sensory activity–readers are not using just their eyes to read. They are also using their sense of touch (don’t books feel great in your hands?) and their sense of smell (the smell of leather-bound books still merit the additional cost and any inconvenience).

    Lastly, when I was in library school, one of my professors pointed out that libraries existed for thousands of years before the first book was written and bound. They usually contained tax revenue records that were written on clay tablets. Will the library as we know it disappear in the foreseeable future? Not likely.

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