-- HamiltonFalk - 16 Nov 2008

Will Libraries Survive Digital Books?

Public libraries serve a number of purposes; a temperate place to spend the day or house community events, a source of free internet access, and a free source of books and information for the public. This service is valuable for educational purposes, allowing anyone, regardless of socio-economic status, to lift themselves by their educational boot-straps. Digital distribution of information, at least in its current form, presents a threat to libraries. The internet has replaced enough of the functionality of lending libraries to threaten them, but not enough to make this net beneficial.

What libraries have now, what the internet replaces.

Currently libraries provide educational and physical assets. Research material, periodicals, non-fiction books of general interest, novels and other books for entertainment, and often music and video are provided by libraries, free of charge. Public space and use of the internet are also valuable. Perhaps the most valuable resource, for society as a whole at least, is that libraries provide the opportunity and usually assistance in finding information. This educational function allows the self-motivated a chance to compete with the thoroughly educated in the modern information intensive world. All of these resources are free, at least to those in the relevant community, with at most minor fees for cards or special assistance.

The internet currently replaces much of the research oriented resources, offering more content in more accessible ways. It is less satisfactory when asked to supply current non-fiction, but is improving quickly, and the same is true for fiction. The physical assets are not replaced, but more troubling is that neither the assistance nor the free-ness is replaced. Access to the internet itself (outside of libraries) has a greater cost than the minimal fees charged by a library, and little of the material available for free at libraries is available (legally) without cost on the internet. And while the internet requires some basic knowledge of the system for use.

If the internet effectively drives libraries out of business, the ideal of freely available education for all is endangered by across the board increases in the entry cost of finding and learning how to find information.

Why the whole library system will be replaced/eliminated by the internet.

There is no loss if the internet simply co-exists with libraries, but it is likely that increasing use of the internet will greatly harm free libraries. This is because the internet will divert users from the libraries because of added convenience. Without a minimum number of users, funding for libraries will evaporate. Currently libraries compete with bookstores by offering free material, with roughly equal "transaction cost". E-books offer all the benefits of a book store (selection, instant availability, permanent ownership, etc.) and add extreme convenience, both in delivery and (eventually) portability. Projects like Google Books even promise many of the books currently in libraries at lower cost than bookstores.

To counter this, libraries would undoubtedly need to offer digital content to compete. Currently this is done with rather heavy digital rights management that prevent almost all in-copyright books from being accessed on anything other than the computer they are downloaded onto and cause the material to expire and disappear after a set time (usually the standard lending time). The issue that exists already with music and video, and will likely extend to books, is that the publishing, music and film industries realize that the inconvenience of libraries is in part what protects them now, and want more restrictions. The need to go to a library, have a card, remember to return books (or CDs/ DVDs), and the lack of selection leads many people to choose store content. When digital copies of books merely require going to a website and typing a number (your library PIN instead of your credit card number), and the book returns itself, libraries become a much larger threat to bookstores and their digital counterparts. So industry will move for tighter restrictions on digital copyright to be applied to libraries as well until they are as inconvenient as they were pre-digital age. This, in combination with the new ease of paid content places libraries at a substantial disadvantage.

Of course, this threat only skims off those users who can afford paid content, of even internet access. The true beneficiaries of libraries (those who need the educational opportunities there) are likely to be poor as well as poorly-educated. The problem is that those people don't have influence that the other portion of library users (let’s call them NPR-listening liberals) do in terms of allocation of tax dollars. In the United States library funding is local, meaning that influential members of local communities (rather than special interests) actually have funding power, through either direct voting or contact with local elected officials. Without interacting with libraries, these people will be more easily convinced that money is better used for parks or street-sweepers.

Possible Solutions.

One obvious solution to this issue would be for Congress to resist the lobbying of the various media groups and allow libraries to keep an equivalent ability to provide free education in the digital age as previously existed. This might be possible is libraries can tap their current users to counter-lobby, since millions of Americans support libraries currently and it would likely require a generational replacement before the above threatened loss of interest in libraries could occur. Alternatively, the advocates of free information (such as the free software movement) could take the library cause into their own, since libraries are among the oldest forms of free information transfer. Such groups could also push for national or at least State funding of libraries, allowing politicians who can use the American ideal of equal educational opportunities in stump speeches or compete for library funding pork to help libraries. Additionally, any method that keeps libraries in the minds of those who are influential on a local level and interested in helping those less fortunate would likely help prevent the problems above.

Hopefully none of what is predicted above will come true. Perhaps paper books will remain viable in a way that plastic CDs and DVDs seem unlikely to. Or maybe strong DRM will find a way to satisfy library members without inciting the ire of publishers. Or perhaps a lobbyist will make a mistake and admit to a powerful Congressman that their goal is to eliminate the hallowed American institution that is the library, and fair use or national funding will get libraries through. Or perhaps the meme of supporting the library for charitable reasons will be stronger than expected. But it is more likely that those who favor free education for anyone able to ask for it need to be aware of the risk to libraries that the new digital age represents, in order that we not lose the free public library.

I'm a little surprised that the library seems to you to be primarily about lending "content." I think of the library as about teaching people how to find and use information. I don't see any reduction in that role's importance. I see only the usual continuing reluctance to fund the public availability of that advice for adults who aren't wealthy and educated, and whose use of services for finding and employing information to their advantage might be socially disruptive.

So I expect libraries to continue to be useful and to continue to starve precisely because they are useful. Except in wealthy suburban towns where the children are cared for after school and the adult inhabitants are securely in the ruling class already. That's why library funding is everywhere local: so those who have can ensure that they primarily continue to get.

-- EbenMoglen - 30 Nov 2008

I'm not sure I got across my point very well, hopefully I can edit down the beginning and make things more clear. I think the library provides two services, the content lending and the education (learning how to find and use information is certainly a better description than the nebulous 'educational value' I have in mind). The second service is the one that is (at least in my mind) more socially useful. The danger I see is that those who actually pay for libraries (by voting or otherwise approving of tax dollars for them), NPR-liberals for lack of a better term, tend to focus on the content providing. So when the internet makes the content provided by the library superfluous, the library as an institution will slip from the thoughts of those people, eliminating both services just because one is no longer as useful.

I don't think any sinister anti-library/pro-establishment force is relevant, it may be a baseline independent of internet. I think the threat is most dangerous is large cities like New York, where there is a mix of rich and poor. Smaller towns are likely to have less of a problem both because the library is more likely to also be a community landmark/gathering place/etc., but also because of local funding (the poor don't have libraries and the rich will keep them, whether for the reasons you've suggested or simple economics).

-- HamiltonFalk - 30 Nov 2008

I agree that there will be an increased focus in libraries on digital media, but not in the way you describe. As you said the two primary goals of a library or content provision and education. Where these two meet is in online databases, the best of which are still subscription-based at this time. The libraries can get educational and/or government discounts for these subscriptions, and provide their patrons both with access to these databases and training and advice regarding how best to use them. Hell, I graduated high school thanks to friendly librarians, boolean logic, ProQuest? searches, and reams of free dot-matrix printouts.

Other than that, I agree with your assessment. The only other thing that libraries have which the internet does not are access to old, rare, and/or out-of-print books. In the next few years services like Google Books will slowly reduce this advantage until it is essentially nil, save perhaps for truly eccentric or rare texts.

-- JohnPowerHely - 10 Dec 2008