Friday, February 10, 2012

The Future of Libraries

By Sean Scarpiello

This upcoming summer, my college is planning a new renovation of our library on campus. Since a good deal of money is being spent to upgrade the library, the administration of the college has been questioning the students about the sorts of changes we would like to see. Recently, between some of my friends, there has been a debate on what the library should keep and what should go. The overall question we are trying to answer is, “What are future libraries going to look like?”

Most of our library debate is focused on the books in the library. There are floors of shelves filled with old books. Most of these book look as if they haven’t been open for years. After some thought, I realized that I had never even checked out a book from the library. The only time I used a source directly from the college library was to read cutting edge biology articles from science journals. After making this discovery, I talked to some of my peers to see if they have signed books out of the library. For the most part, they had not checked out any books either. However, my friends who had checked out books described that they ultimately ended up online at GoogleBooks. Here, they were able to simply find the books the library had in print form, and do an automated search through the book. I have also used this resource for classes because it enables students to spend less time thumbing through hundreds of pages looking for a few informative pages.

For some courses like biology, psychology, and other sciences, there are few if any books to be used as sources in paper. This is due to the fact that new scientific breakthroughs are occurring every day. The new innovations make the old material obsolete, so there is no real purpose to having books on these topics. For other topics, such as political science, economics, and history, there are a multitude of books which are also slowly expiring. Scientific breakthroughs in DNA and other fields of science allow us to better understand our past in new ways. Perhaps it would be better to have a library of scientific journals and books on certain, slower progressing fields.

Some of my peers think there should be no books in the library at all. We could move to a library full of computers hooked up to online libraries and databases which are easy to access and quite possibly cheaper. The lack of physical books would free up a lot of space for these computers and study lounges. Also, students would be able to write papers more efficiently as they would not need to look through pages of books; looking for the needle in the haystack of information. Free tools such as GoogleBooks already have a program which allows limited access to thousands of books. College students everywhere are using these resources so they can spend less time in the library. It would only make sense to make this transition, yet some are still skeptical about going completely electronic. What do you think?


Anonymous said...

I am 100% with you and your peers: No paper books, but go for the electronic resources. Actually that should be a no-brainer, for all the reasons you stated, particularly as long as the subjects studied are science related. Yet even for "fine literature," say reading Truman Capote's "Breakfast qt Tiffany" is IMHO also better on the web, in this case for another reason: because on my iPad, where most likely I'd be reading it, I can enlarge the font to make the book easy to read (as would apply to many vision-impaired people) while in a paper book, particularly the paper-back copies printed nowadays, the print is so small, they are strenuous to read even if you have perfect eye sight.

Anonymous said...

You write: "We could move to a library full of computers hooked up to online libraries and databases which are easy to access and quite possibly cheaper."

I don't disagree with the vision, but as someone who has worked in academic libraries for many years, it seems likely that you are vastly underestimating the cost of electronic resources ("online libraries and databases.")

While I think the future is electronic and I'd never advocate "books" as an equivalent resource to databases, I think the notion that electronic libraries will necessarily be cheaper than print libraries is naive. Content costs are higher with electronics. Yes, you gain a lot -- indexing, full-text indexing, metadata, etc. -- but you tend to pay for smaller and smaller increments of data (not a book, but a chapter, not a journal, but an article).

Publishers (particularly those in the sciences) are forcing cost models and use restrictions that exceed anything we've know previously.

(And I only do my recreational reading on kindle.)