Future of Libraries

I have just spent the last day and a half reading AACR2, rules for NACO, and articles centering on the relevancy of libraries in the Information Age. Many people tend to be pretty optimistic about the future of libraries and this of course has excited me because it is my chosen profession. However, I am still left in doubt over a couple of issues that no one seems willing to address. After reading David Lewis’s “Strategy for Academic Libraries in First Quarter of the 21st Century” for the third or fourth time,

I was struck by some of his thoughts.

What will it mean to libraries when all books are potentially full-text searchable and available to everyone with an Internet connection?

This is certainly a relevant question but unfortunately I do not believe Lewis explores it in his paper fully. Although it is possible that copyright will not be an issue in the future, it is more likely that the ability to actually read the books that are digitized and searchable in full-text will still be dependent upon purchasing and license agreements. Libraries lend print now…perhaps they can just expand their policies to electronic items like streaming music, video and text.

Lewis brings up the topic of bundling but he does not explore the possible implications for monographic items—as of yet bundling has solely been used by vendors to offer subscriptions to multiple databases and journals. Why couldn’t this model transfer to online monographs? Perhaps a 30-day previewing authorization then the library would have to pay for the book if desired. If the library keeps the item, there will need to be some sort of notification to the cataloger that the library now has access; really the electronic journal model is increasingly applicable here. Instead of bundles of journals libraries will get anthologies of books, music, or other media formats. However, while everyone seems to think (erroneously) that the need for cataloging will decrease as print and other physical formats are phased out, if we acquire electronic formats of music, video and text, electronic cataloging will only increase for monographs just as it has for journals recently.

Later Lewis admits that “While some print materials will remain important, particularly monographs in the humanities and social sciences, in general, print materials will cease to be the primary part of working collections.” Will monographs still be king in the humanities publishing world? This is an important question for anyone interested in the future of scholarship in the humanities. Are humanists going to adopt electronic publishing models eventually? It seems that even Lewis believes it will be a long time before the monograph is supplanted by online publications.

Finally, and perhaps, most disturbingly, Lewis writes about open-access publication methods:

From the perspective of students and faculty, the growth of open access means that more high-quality scholarly material is freely available (and most easily found with Google or Google Scholar). This frees them from reliance on their campus’s library as the sole source for scholarly materials. Over time, this will mean that the library’s collection of purchased materials, in both print and electronic formats, will be less important. The good news is that as this happens, libraries will be required to purchase less. The especially good news is that this should happen first in the area of science and technology journals where the cost of materials has increased at double-digit rates for several decades. The bad news is that much of what libraries have done in the past is make available purchased collections, and, as this role declines, so may we.

Here again Lewis does not really offer any kind of solution except that we need to be curators of this free content. However, it seems to me that if much of what we do now is to provide access to costly materials, when those materials really are available free online libraries won’t be necessary any longer. Instead libraries would simply be marginalized… all the university would need is someone to update a subject page periodically with the most recent links to the hottest journals and monographs online. Barring that, there will be no real reason for a user to come to the library—they can simply search the web for the content they need (why bother even going to a subject page?).

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