Friday, January 29, 2010

Libraries

DSC03503 Google has set itself the task of digitizing all of the world’s books, sparking a continuing debate about the value of easy access vs.  the rights of authors.   I favor the compromise that compensates copyright holders generally while allowing access to out-of-print works, believing that more access to books is better than less.

But I worry about what this project means for the future of libraries.

Libraries exist as collections of useful materials for common use, a shared community resource supported by universal tax contributions.  They’ve been under a lot of pressure lately: budgets are tight, people are reading less, and special interest groups are challenging their purpose.  (Details in the ALA’s yearly survey and the “Save-a-Library” fund.)

For me, libraries were always special.

I like the symbolism of having public libraries, rooted in the enlightened ideal of creating informed citizens. Broad factual knowledge and the full spectrum of literature and opinion should be freely and equally available, so shelves of books from across ages and nations were set down right in my neighborhood for me to borrow and read.  I was shocked when I was asked to leave the college library at Trinity (Cambridge) because I wasn’t a member.   I worry about monopoly power and user fees undermining access, or creating just enough friction to drive people away.

I like browsing the shelves.  The organization of books by genre and subject meant that if I found one good work, dozens more would be nearby.  It led to associative learning: I’d thumb through books next to the one I was looking for, or pick up other works by favorite authors because they were handy.  The King County Library system was among the best, transporting any book to my local library within a day, for free.  I worry that books will become more isolated from the full body of knowledge as they move online.  It’s already happened with research papers:  I download .pdfs of articles instead of thumbing the table of contents of key journals.

I like Librarians.  They always understood where to find some obscure detail or had a personal recommendation.  They were even a bit heroic, defending the variety of books on the shelf and (until recently) preventing the government from asking what I’d checked out.  I worry that our general guides to the world’s knowledge will disappear, taking not only their understanding of the landscape, but their enthusiasm for the journey with them.

I used to think that a person’s impact and legacy could best be measured by how many books they’d inspired.  Not biographies, but a shelf of volumes explaining their thoughts, drawing implication, building on the work.  That associatively and accessibility comes, in part, because there are public libraries.  I don’t think the virtues will survive the transition to Google Books.

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