Rare Book Monthly

Articles - August - 2007 Issue

Books and Information Go Their Separate Ways

7.31

Print goes onto the net every day


By Bruce McKinney

Books until recently have been the primary form for preserving and distributing information. They were typically inexpensive, compact and easily organized. Society, to ensure broad access, supported libraries. Schools had their own as did most communities. Information was widely held as a social good. For decades books and information were inseparable and this has made it an easy assumption that books and information are inseparable. They are not and the consequences for libraries enormous.

For the past ten years the internet has made it possible to obtain information without opening a book. Initially the book you didn't have to open was the yellow pages. These days it's increasingly your research resources. It isn't so much that the exact material is online. Rather it's that a reasonable approximation is and it's easy to find. You may not find the Encyclopedia Britannica but you will find Wikipedia. In the not-so-distant future internet search results will dwarf the content of all books though the online content will not be the same. It could include all books and if Google and in time other search engines continue to pursue this as a goal it probably will. Google now scans older books adding every word on every page to their database. Where once we looked up title and author we can now look up references in the full text. This is the difference between counting pails of sand and examining every grain. In doing this search engines redefine the very definition of knowing. Libraries, whose core mission is enlightenment, now find themselves as deer in the headlights of technological change that reduces their currency, the printed word, to the easily and freely searchable. They have seen this coming.

Popular literature and magazines were among the first to move from library to home. For decades they have been widely promoted to the public who increasingly prefer to buy a copy rather than visit a library to see or borrow it. The economics are simple. The borrowing of a book is free but two trips, that aren't, are required. Libraries are also typically a step behind in the stocking of popular new material. The lines for the recent Harry Potter book weren't at libraries. They were at book stores.

Libraries have been redefining their reason-for-being for decades. They have been stocking up on the type of information that individuals occasionally need but rarely have. Scientific monographs, databases, bound runs of local newspapers, the books and ephemera of local history and expensive and difficult to obtain materials to name just a few. They have also been active in acquiring databases and internet access to entire categories of databases. And increasingly libraries let patrons access these databases from their computers at work and home. Thus the line between patron, library and internet data source is blurring even as libraries adjust to the changing world.

Traditionally libraries have owned their material and been protective of it. Their ownership has allowed them to impose rules, limits, specific days and hours. And as libraries increasingly have added databases to their resources they also tended to select those that were restricted to libraries or were so expensive as to be beyond the reach of individuals. So even if they did not own the material it effectively functioned as "owned" material. Control has been the paramount issue.

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