Digital Underclass: Libraries Aren't Dead Yet

The library of the past is no longer an information gatekeeper, but now an information launch point.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer on

The Darien, Connecticut Public Library, which was re-opened in January of 2009 after a huge $24M reconstruction project serves as a shining example that many communities still value and support their libraries.

In my article last week about the potential for the creation of a Digital Underclass due to the growing use of digital content replacing printed books and periodicals, I discussed a very disturbing and yet entirely possible future for the Public Library -- one in which it may even cease to exist.

I received quite a few responses to the article in the TalkBack comments as well as via private email, some who were in general agreement (such as this excellent blog postby Library Scientist K.G. Schneider) but also many who felt that my vision of the library's future was far too pessimistic.

Our own ZDNet Education blogger, Chris Dawson, presented our readers with an alternative vision, one where the Library becomes a center for learning and information in the Digital Age in partnership with educational institutions and schools.

One of the most spirited and well-constructed opposing viewpoints that I received was from Andy Woodworth, a New Jersey-based Librarian and Library Advocate who authors the Agnostic, Maybe blog. Among his blog's numerous awards from various library-related organizations, Woodworth was also named as a Library Journal Mover and Shakerin 2010.

In the traditional spirit of allowing Letters to the Editor in print media, I present you with Andy's view on the state of Public Libraries. If you'd like to read the "extended material" which includes his original email response to me, you can read it at his site here.

There are many points regarding ebooks in the articles and comments, but my first question for the ZDNet authors and readers in approaching this discussion is this: why does the rise of one format preclude the other format? Valerie Strauss at the Washington Post recently wrote that the battle of digital versus physical one is a pointless affair; you still need both types because there are things you can do with one that you cannot do with another.

One can buy, read, and then give away a physical copy of a book; currently, that is not an option for ebooks purchased through ereaders. One can download and carry hundreds of books in a single light device with the capability of recalling them in moments; that is not something that a physical book can replicate. We as a society of digital haves and have-nots will need both formats in order to assure the future of literacy. The question will be how they are distributed by the library for the common good.

The rise of the ebook presents many different issues to the library world. There is excitement in the idea that there will be new methods of electronic delivery for books that people wish to borrow. The library can finally move to where it is needed at the moment it is needed. Libraries wants information access to be ubiquitous, available when and where a person seeks it, and with the smallest number of barriers. The ebook has the potential to live up to this ideal.

There is concern about ereaders and ebook formats, both of which present their own issues in terms of compatibility, proprietary software, and licensing. Currently, there is no standard file type for ebooks. In addition, the ebook software is also generally locked up with its associated reader with certain exceptions. In addition, the Right of First Sale does not apply to ebook purchases; you are not permitted to resell, lend, or otherwise dispose of the ebook.

The current market of ereaders treats the material as part of a licensing agreement which permits you to have access to the titles that you have selected and purchased via access rights. That is not a highly desirable situation for libraries since licensing can lead to content removal without notice.

And there is downright worry about publishers and authors when it comes to the assertion of copyright and Digital Rights Management (DRM) to their materials. While librarians would not deny the right for these entities to profit from their intellectual creations, there is a vastly inconsistent field of terms and conditions when it comes to their use that can be dictated by the publisher and/or the author.

These nuanced variations are absolutely maddening when attempting to locate materials for a customer. In demanding the use of DRM (to prevent pirating), it can create conditions under which the lending of an ebook is so narrow that it would not be feasible for library lending. There is a point where the limitations are so onerous that it is not worth staff time or library budget expenditures; the current DRM and copyright practices invoke this reaction right now.

The current bottom line when it comes to libraries and ebooks is that the options are limited. There are only a few companies (one by the name of Overdrive) that deal in the business of ebook lending services for libraries to offer their customers. With some of the limitations that have been listed above, this creates its own special quagmire for ebooks.

None of the ereader companies nor any of the ebook sellers have come to the table with libraries about using their devices or their content. To be perfectly honest, right now there is little incentive for them to do so. Personally, I think it is a matter of time as the ebook market develops and finds itself or when those companies start looking for additional revenue streams or when their customers start demanding it.

In terms of what the library future looks like, last night I saw this video about the Darien Public Library in Darien, Connecticut. This library is one of the top public libraries in the United States if not the world. It's a marvelous video about a new library that was constructed and how it has became the focal point of the community.

The reason that this has reached to the hearts of the community is that it is completely people oriented: the library staff members work hard to make the connection between the customer and the information or material that is sought. The library of the past is no longer an information gatekeeper, but now an information launch point. The enormous increase in the amount of information that is available to an individual will increase (not decrease) the need for librarians and other information professionals.

Please, take the time to watch the video. It's fifty minutes well spent and gives a vision for the library in the 21st century.

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