Alex Steer

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Splitting the future of libraries into two

481 words | ~2 min

In this post I'm not talking about mobile networks or attitudes to the cost of cloud computing. I will do, but this is about libraries.

The BBC News website has a short and slightly overdramatic video piece asking whether e-books will spell the end of lending libraries. (It also shows lots of nice shots of the British Library, where I spent a summer scanning manuscripts and early printed books. Rock and roll.)

It doesn't exactly come to many conclusions, so I've come to a couple of my own.

It's hard to argue with the notion that digital or digitally scanned texts are more useful than printed books, at least in highly-connected environments like the UK. You can raise lots of other arguments for the superiority of printed books - as cultural totems, as art objects, as fetishes (in the broad sense - the smell, the feel, etc.), as gifts (though as I've said that perception may change, if slowly). But ebooks are weightless and searchable. In terms of sheer usability, for most of us, ebooks just win. As they become less unfamiliar and the technology improves and becomes less baffling, we can expect an acceleration in their uptake.

Under those circumstances, taken to an extreme, there's no need for physical libraries as places to go and borrow books from, even ebooks. The idea, which I've heard mooted, of turning up to download an ebook is insane. It's suggested by some ebook pioneer in the BBC video, but it just makes no sense and will kill lending libraries even faster, especially if the cost of buying ebooks falls - and it might, as the ability to peg the price of ebooks to the price of physical books declines because people realize it's horribly unrealistic.

Libraries have another function, though. If you take the idea of a lending library, rather than its strict form (a building full of books you can read and borrow), it splits neatly into two:

  1. A resource for acquiring reading matter on a temporary basis at low or zero cost; and
  2. A publicly-accessible shared work space available at low or zero cost

Online ebook lending takes on the first function. As far as I know, nothing takes on the second function except coffee shops, which do so incidentally and with varying degrees of begrudgery.

For now, and probably for decades, there will be a need for book-lending libraries, though I reckon it will become increasingly marginal. It feels, though, like the idea of shared public workspaces has a lot of mileage. If I had to advise a library on where to invest, I'd say more desks, comfier chairs, and faster, simpler internet connections. Oh, and coffee machines.

# Alex Steer (13/03/2011)