Digital libraries won’t make regular ones obsolete
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Duke Humfrey's Library, Bodleian Libraries, CC BY-SA 3.0

Duke Humfrey's Library, Bodleian Libraries, CC BY-SA 3.0

Both physical and digital library spaces are needed today

The Bodleian Libraries at Oxford are over 400 years old. Though never at a loss for words with over 12 million printed items, the second-largest library collection in Britain had a very short response to the suggestion that one day it could go wholly digital:

That said, as a legal book deposit, the Bodleian has over 50,000 e-books and an extensive research guide for using these resources, from medieval texts to the latest releases. And with so many of its oldest collections online, those 400-plus years are more accessible to readers than ever. Similar digitization projects, in Turkey and Morocco, are digitizing centuries-old manuscripts for wider dissemination.

But, in some circles, having such buildings to store collections is obsolete. Austerity measures may yet come for smaller libraries in the UK, and in other countries as well, including the US. Libraries cost money to staff and maintain the property of, but it seems many people who attend one would still prefer to see a librarian behind the counter rather switch over to unstaffed access options. (Perhaps one day, virtual assistants will fill that gap?)

“Libraries,” writes John Palfrey in BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google, “are at risk because we have forgotten how essential they are.” Especially in age where you can even download cheap or free books from your supermarket, much like with a Redbox rental kiosk. Writing on Boston’s public library system, the third largest such system in the US, he notes that its continued viability has depended on maintain a physical space inviting to readers, young and old, while also updating its infrastructure, “to bring these digital materials to life.”

Digital access is certainly a boon to me as a researcher and writer. I do not need to leave the home, worry about due dates, or lose out on access because the only two hardcopies of a book are unavailable. Digitization of books makes a lot of important research as accessible as market reports and news stories through Factiva. Much of this knowledge, once locked away behind dusty archival doors or available for a fee, is now freely available without a trip outside the home.

Need for a physical space

But, I personally prefer hardcopy books for some other occasions. Firstly, when reading for leisure I prefer a bound volume, because it is less strain on my eyes, and I don’t have to take a device with me. Also, I have found that I remember the notes I take better if I’ve made them while reading a book and typing them out, or making the pages up with notes and pencil. (Digital highlighter text is handy since it can be displayed all in one column, but I remember less of the material.) And some uniquely formatted books just don’t display well in an e-reader.

That said, I greatly appreciate having access to such rare and out-of-print books their through an e-reader via organizations like the HaithiTrust Digital Library, which recently digitized 500,000 historic works on Latin America at the University of Texas, or Ebrary.

Digital access to government records, in particular, is a vital service for the public to stay informed about what their officials are doing and have done in the past.

Of course, many of these services are only enjoyable through a physical library, or membership in one with remote access. For households that do not have computers or internet, an actual library building is essential whether to check a book out or read one on a desktop. An actual space is still necessary, especially as subscription services are prohibitively expensive outside for individuals outside of a business or institution.

Beyond just the books and articles, though, is the community space that encompasses educational programs, public forums, and language or vocational instruction. As Palfrey puts it, “If we don’t maintain physical libraries, we will lose essential public, intellectual spaces in our communities,” while at the same time, “if we don’t build digital libraries connected to them, those physical spaces may become obsolete anyway.”

One key example of where this could and does together is with the revival of the beloved childhood classic on public television, Reading Rainbow. Defunded in 2009 and taken off the air, it now has a digital edition in the form of a “skybrary” with hundreds of children’s books and educational videos, plus an app for phones, tablets, and computers.

Like its earlier incarnation, the “new” Reading Rainbow is dedicated not to teach basic reading skills (one of the reasons it got the budget axe), but to encourage children to read on their own, which does improve overall learning experiences. Yet, with subscription fees and device requirements, it may not be accessible to the least wired-in households. One solution to that? Making it available for free at computer terminals in libraries, as is already being done in grammar schools, and to mirror the practices of other literary non-profits offering digital packages, like the Children’s Literacy Initiative.

Some parents may not be comfortable with such an app-centric approach for young children. Or in general: digital may look like the enemy of attention spans, but this need not be so. “The conversation back in the ’80s was,” as Reading Rainbow host LeVar Burton put in a 2014 interview, “is television the enemy of education?”. The success of programs like his, and Sesame Street, showed that TV could be an educator’s tool.

It is libraries that can demonstrate today with digital that it is not the enemy of either education, or attention spans.

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