I think we can safely say the battle between electronic readers and printed books is over. Printed books will not disappear, at least not in our lifetime, but electronic editions will become the predominant form. Coming generations will read on a screen, not paper. That leaves the question of what becomes of all of those millions of old, pre-electronic era books out there, their texts gradually being retrofitted into digital impulses, but physically still held in collections in their original form. Here we look to the newswires, and see some news, both positive and disheartening.
Johns Hopkins University is adding a $30 million extension to its main library, called the Brody Learning Commons. According to the Johns Hopkins Newsletter, it is designed to be a "student-friendly space," as compared to the "bunker-feeling" of the main library. It has been carefully designed to provide wireless connectivity throughout with "no dead spots." There will be a café to facilitate social interaction, "integrating learning and coffee." Who needs Starbucks? "Indeed, it will truly be a 21st century library," the article states.
Oh, one more thing. The BLC will not have books. They are not being eliminated from Johns Hopkins, as the old library will still have stacks of them. It's just the place where students will want to go that won't have books. However, there is one exception, and this will enable those who cherish rare and antiquarian books to take heart - "Other than the rare books, the BLC will not have stacks for any other books." Recent and common books, as well as textbooks, may not be found in this human-friendly new library building, but a place is being set aside for a rare book room. We believe that this is the way it should be in this new age of digital reading. We need to preserve a part of our past, as that is who we are, so we can enable future generations to understand and participate in our history. It is important for coming generations to understand where we have been as they plot the course to where we will go. This is a good choice Johns Hopkins has made.
Some less encouraging news comes out of the University of Nevada in Reno. Here, budgetary constraints may lead to perhaps shortsighted short-range solutions. A brief notice on the home page of the university's special collections explains, "As many people have heard, Special Collections is one of the units on campus that would be closed as part of the Provost's proposal to reduce expenses to cover the university's budget shortfall of $59 million." According to their website, Special Collections houses 20,000 books, 200,000 photographs, manuscripts, architectural plans, and historical maps. The major areas of focus are Nevada and the Great Basin, the book arts, and rare books in general.
In justifying this cut, the Provost's proposal states that while preservation of material has been a historic function of libraries, and serves "an important public service function," it is "less directly connected to the University's broader instructional and research emphases than other discrete parts of the University Libraries." Specifically, the proposal states:
"The department and its specific collections would remain dormant into the foreseeable future.
Retrieval of materials housed in the Department would be made on an as-needed basis by other library staff.
Digitization projects reporting through Special Collections would cease.
Additions to the dormant collections in the form of purchased acquisitions would cease; gifts would be discouraged or redirected, as appropriate, to the State Historical Society."
Naturally, some library employees will be losing their jobs too. Obviously, any bookseller hoping to offer material to the University will have to wait a long, long time, perhaps forever. When a library says it will discourage even gifts, purchases are but a dream. There is nothing in the notice threatening to sell off their collection, but maintaining one of this size is not inexpensive. One can only wonder whether library-as-albatross eventually becomes library-as-source-of-revenue as unwillingness to adequately fund it drags on.
Once upon a time, we suffered through a Great Depression. Despite the enormous financial difficulties, we still managed to fund a Federal Writers' Project and other programs to keep our writing and art alive. A decade later the greatest peacetime expansion America has ever seen began, our arts and culture still intact. Such a commitment through even moderately hard times no longer appears to be so clear. What this bodes for our future is unknown.