Gut The Libraries
November 20, 2003 5:40 AM   Subscribe

Interesting Column by Tim Whitaker, editor at Philadelphia Weekly, who "kind of jests" someone should order the main branch of the Free Library at 19th and Vine streets gutted, all the passé books written by the long since dead and decayed--books that nobody looks at anyway, thrown out, and replaced with computers.
This could be done over a long weekend, and the new Free Workstation Center of Philadelphia would open. Thousands of city residents who'd been priced out of the Information Revolution for well over a decade would rush to the free computers to experience the online rush that comes with access to the WWW.
He says Amazon's new service "search inside the book" is the first glimpse of a full-bore revolution in the way research will be conducted and books will be distributed in the future that spells the death of libraries.
He bounced this idea off of Steven Levy, a Philadelphia native who writes about technology for Newsweek, and he says "It's not that crazy, The future of libraries is a hot topic with librarians all over the country."
"Once the Web has become a full-service digital archive of the whole wide written word, it'll only be a quick innovation or two before we'll have the technology to order and bind books on our own home book-printing systems. Ebooks will finally become reality. Libraries will become mini-museums, where old books are kept under glass, relics of the pre-"inside the book" revolutionary age."
posted by Blake (22 comments total)
Because it's hard to, you know, insert DRM into all those pesky book things. This latest attack on libraries has been going on for a couple of years. But Ray Bradbury saw it first.
posted by anewc2 at 6:03 AM on November 20, 2003

And then it'll just take one good EMP pulse - maybe from a quasar or something - to clean out the whole mess of accrued human knowledge and cultural achievement and send us back to the stone age........or maybe just an especially nasty data-erasing computer virus.

Speaking of which, the noted scientist and inventor Jim Lovelock advocated in a Science editorial a couple of years ago - we'd be smart to commit the best of current scientific knowledge to print, in a single (or several) large volumes printed on the most durable acid free paper, and widely distributed around the Globe. - "We have confidence in our science-based civilization and think it has tenure. In so doing, I think we fail to distinguish between the life-span of civilizations and that of our species. In fact, civilizations are ephemeral compared with species. Humans have lasted at least a million years, but there have been 30 civilizations in the past 5000 years. Humans are tough and will survive; civilizations are fragile....What we need is a primer on science, clearly written and unambiguous in its meaning--a primer for anyone interested in the state of the Earth and how to survive and live well on it. One that would serve also as a primary school science text. It would be the scientific equivalent of the Bible. It would contain practical information such as how to light a fire, and things to wonder about when it was lit. It would explain the natural selection of living things and what we know about the universe. Among its contents would be the principles of medicine and surgery with an account of how the blood circulates and the role of the organs. We take for granted the facts of pharmacology and the existence of bacteria and viruses, but this knowledge could easily be lost and take centuries to recover. Equally vulnerable are the facts of engineering and thermodynamics--even basic instructions on how to measure temperature and pressure. A glance at the history of chemistry shows how long it took to discover the periodic table of the elements and to provide an account of the air, the rocks, and the oceans. The book would present science to schoolchildren and to adults in a relevant and interesting way. It would be more than a survival manual; it would help restore science as part of our culture and be passed down as an inheritance to future generations.

It is no use even thinking of presenting such a book on magnetic or optical media, or indeed any kind of medium that needs a computer and electricity to read it. Words stored in such a form are transient and have no tenure. Not only is the storage medium itself short-lived, but reading documents stored in these media depends on specialized hardware and software. In this technology, rapid obsolescence is usual. Modern media are more fallible instruments for long-term storage than was the spoken word. They require the support of a sophisticated technology that we cannot take for granted. What we need is a book written on durable paper with long-lasting print."

posted by troutfishing at 6:07 AM on November 20, 2003 [1 favorite]

The only thing crazier than a huge building full of paper books is a huge building full of workstations connected to the Internet.

Wouldn't it make more sense to get these machines into peoples' homes somehow? God knows we've managed to do it with TVs.

Also: To some, the Eighties may mean Flock of Seagulls and Iran-Contra, but to others it brings back the Great Card Catalog Controversy.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 6:09 AM on November 20, 2003

Books are more durable than bits, and they are more accessible. There's two prime reasons for libraries to favor them over computers. However, it's silly to frame this as an either/or proposition.

As for home printing, like so many advances in manufacturing and distribution technology, gains in convenience will be paid in loss of craftsmanship, but that's a path books have been on for a long while now. Such is the way of the world, I suppose.

Also, a book under glass is no longer a book (at least not in my book).
posted by Nothing at 6:15 AM on November 20, 2003

What a load of hooey. So information will only be available to the people can afford it? Viva the library!
posted by agregoli at 6:23 AM on November 20, 2003

I thought it was entertaining that Whitaker makes a step into the future by advocating the replacement of a portable, fairly durable medium that can be minorly upgraded (the damn things need rebound or replaced from time to time) with machines that might be "outdated" by the time they come through the door.

He goes on to toss in a few other things that may be anachronisms or merely a lack of knowledge due to his career as a writer, not a technologist. Wouldn't the systems be pre-imaged with the necessary software, so no one would need to "..get to work installing and downloading all the right programs before making them cable-modem ready." Cable-modem ready? The last time I checked, ethernet would be a lot handier in a library.

So what changes do we need to make this vision work, instead of making it some extension of my "high-tech" home consumer lifestyle into a public space? First, the truck that picks up the books should be taken to a location where they'll be scanned, OCR'ed, and "re-bound" as digital documents. Preferably with some sort of publisher-approved technique. Ideally, the full-text used by Amazon would be licensed in the place of a book, but not all out of print texts have their contents in a computer.

Second, get rid of the cable modems. Go for ethernet, supplemented by wireless ethernet. Have a bunch of tablet PCs available for use within the library at the front counter. If new devices utilizing the "digital paper" we've heard about for years become available, switch to them. Nobody wants to sit in front of a computer to read a book. I want to curl up in one of the study areas or reading nooks of the library. Ideally, these tablets would be able to access the library contents only, and not the internet. That would address the concerns about viewing improper material. There could still be a row of computers in a monitored area for access to the internet at large.

What else do we need in the book reading software? I'd like the ability to highlight a passage, click "quote" and have the section emailed to me, complete with bibliographic citation with author, book, page number, etc.

We're not quite there yet, but as Whitaker's column notices, we're a hell of a lot closer than we used to be.
posted by mikeh at 6:28 AM on November 20, 2003

<jargon alert>
Make that ...insert DRM into...
</jargon alert>

Thou shalt explain all acronyms
posted by anewc2 at 6:28 AM on November 20, 2003

A story of the honor of books.

I once had a friend from Spain, a historian. His family spent thousands of dollars to prove that he was a 15th cousin (or so) to King Juan Carlos. The reason being that only those with a relationship to the royal family were permitted in the royal library.
Some of the books therein were giant tomes, often perhaps three feet tall, and attached by chains to their bookshelf. A reading desk was the appropriate distance away to rest each book.
But why bother to visit a library full of old, dusty books?

In their time, the Spanish were the chroniclers of the world. Information down to the seemingly trivial was noted in the most boring subjects, such as the travel of ships and their cargoes, the opening of the New World, and topics that today are of inestimable value.

The parallels between this and the current situation are many, and worth consideration. The restriction to access of knowledge; its careful preservation; deciding for the future what it useful and what is useless, discardable information.
posted by kablam at 7:18 AM on November 20, 2003

He really only thinks that because the Philly library system -- like all of Philly's city services -- has fallen into a state of total disrepair. None of the modern conveniences are available in that library system. No self checkout. No ability to search the catalog and reserve books over the internet. The central branch is dark and weird... they actually do have some cool stuff tucked away in there, though, as well as a fair number of interesting events. They also have a fair number of internet capable computers already.

Whitaker should visit Portland, Oregon's main branch public library, where he'll be able to sip Starbucks coffee in a nice, clean library. Even my the library new home town of Tempe, AZ seems to have a better community focus, which includes an ongoing lecture series from local professors and whatnot.

... which brings me to the final point. Libraries are more than just information repositories and access points. A well run library fulfills a central role in the community as a place where anyone can access the world's knowledge.
posted by ph00dz at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2003

(and fumigated to get rid of that mildewey decimal smell)

posted by mbd1mbd1 at 7:41 AM on November 20, 2003

Don't libraries have both books and internet access already? What's the big deal here?
posted by biffa at 7:44 AM on November 20, 2003

All those poor underprivileged people living in the art museum area & downtown center city will finally have a convenient place to check their e-mail!

Perhaps, instead of spending money on this, we could get a decent public transit system.
posted by password at 7:53 AM on November 20, 2003

If you think a library is about giving people who can't afford it access to knowledge, then digital is much cheaper and provides more access to more people.

If you think it's about long-term archival storage, then the more copies, in more places, in more formats, the better. Digital wins here too.

If you think it's about providing a "third place" in the community for people to gather, then a library should contain the services people want, including both digital and books, as well as many other things.

I personally think the highest priority is for libraries to provide more resources for poor people who are looking for a job or for information on how to deal with the bureaucracy. They should be judged based on whether people actually use their services.
posted by fuzz at 8:25 AM on November 20, 2003

I personally think the highest priority is for libraries to provide more resources for poor people who are looking for a job or for information on how to deal with the bureaucracy.

I couldn't agree less. Libraries - and the opportunties they provide for self-improvement - aren't just about doing so with regard to finding a better job. Increasing one's depth and breadth of knowledge have value in themselves which goes outside the economic value that can be assigned to them. Libraries allow people access to sources of information which they might otherwise be denied and have value implications relating to personal fulfilment and self-actualisation which can not be easily monetised. They can also be a community focal point, a source of open knowledge to support children otherwise restricted in what they can learn by the education system, and, as suggested above, a 'third place' for social interaction, particularly, but not restricted to, those with limited opportunities for this elsewhere.

Gosh, isn't it odd when you realise you feel quite passionate about what your local library does?
posted by biffa at 8:45 AM on November 20, 2003

Speaking of libraries not being just repositories and access points, here's the display that's currently in the main lobby of the Free Library of Philadelphia. Seems kind of relevant...
posted by soyjoy at 9:42 AM on November 20, 2003

If you think a library is about giving people who can't afford it access to knowledge, then digital is much cheaper and provides more access to more people.

Buying a bunch of computers may be cheaper than buying a bunch of books, but it is far, far cheaper to maintain the books than the computers. In the long term, books are a lot cheaper than computers. Especially if you feel pressured to upgrade your systems every few years, which amounts to buying a whole new set of computers.

As far as access goes, I much prefer being able to take a book home or to the park to read it than being required to sit in an oversized computer lab, listening to people type. This option wouldn't be available to people without computers at home. There's also the question of knowing how to use a computer in the first place, which is another limit to people's access. In addition to common literacy (enough of a problem in many places), you get the added problem of computer literacy.

If you think it's about long-term archival storage, then the more copies, in more places, in more formats, the better. Digital wins here too.

Digital wins if we're talking about this year. I'm not sure that the 'computer revolution' would survive a good world-wide economic collapse or decline. Computer parts are not built to last. A hard drive has a life of about two or three years, a CD lasts around 20. If the computer manufacturing industry were to fall apart, that means that we could only expect to have working left-over computers for maybe ten years, at most. And then we've got nothing to read the CD's.

This over-grown economy cannot last forever, after all.

posted by kaibutsu at 10:23 AM on November 20, 2003 [1 favorite]

whoops; forgot to close that tag!

The first and fourth 'grafs are quoting fuzz.
posted by kaibutsu at 10:25 AM on November 20, 2003

And then it'll just take one good EMP pulse - maybe from a quasar or something - to clean out the whole mess of accrued human knowledge and cultural achievement and send us back to the stone age........or maybe just an especially nasty data-erasing computer virus. -- troutfishing

That is such a good story idea...

I hope books never go away...I love the feel of a good hardback...the crisp linen-y feel of creamy heavy paper, the text dark and inviting...I love books.
posted by dejah420 at 1:53 PM on November 20, 2003

There's absolutely no argument for totally getting rid of books in libraries yet. I suspect there won't be anything close for... well, I'd say fifty years, but given the current political state of affairs, probably more like a century.

Digital information will only be available for free to the people who need it for as long as they stay inside the physical building. To me, this isn't very valuable. A book is something you can take with you and requires no additional technology. There's no way digital information can do anything like competing with that.

And libraries are about more than fact-finding... sure, a digital library might be handy if you're looking for a good recipe for pot roast, but would you really want to read the entirety of a novel on a computer monitor in a library? Of course not, and the evidence is that any books in the public domain are still printed and sold.

Computers are valuable for libraries, but only really to a limited extent... I like the level of computer availability in my local libraries: computers at the branches for Internet use and word processing, and an online card catalog that can be accessed from home. I don't think they need any more than that, though.
posted by dagnyscott at 2:06 PM on November 20, 2003

There's a place for both: I want a future where all available books, everywhere, have been scanned into the Great Human Library, to be preserved for searching and re-printing. (And pictures, and photographs, and paintings, and circuit diagrams, and blogs, and all the other pieces of human knowledge and creativity.) Would 10^12 GB be enough, do you think? That's only 10^9 TB, and 1000 TB storage media is only 20 years away, and making a million of them is very feasible - how many 1.44MB floppies do you think exist in the world?

I also foresee multiple copies of the Great Human Library, and the devices required to search and print out media from it, to be in multiple locations worldwide. Nations, corporations, even individuals would own copies. (Which raises the question of forking, but anyhow ...) Eventually a bounty could be paid for books not yet in the GHL; find some obscure book in Grandma's attic, and if it isn't in the GHL, you get paid for it.

Even private correspondence and so on has a place in the GHL. Anything anyone gives could go in. Whatever its lack of 'value'.

The GHL: It knows everything humanity knows.

But I also like the 'production values' of books, paintings, etc. The two concepts, real things and electronic representations, have different but overlapping purposes. For searchability, nothing beats electronic copies. For taking in a bag to read on a train, nothing beats paperback.
posted by aeschenkarnos at 5:00 PM on November 20, 2003

Uh-oh. Just wait till Nicholson Baker hears about this!
posted by muckster at 9:02 PM on November 20, 2003

The real question is, how would libraries get the money to upgrade like this? My hometown library finally got a new building, after fighting for more space with referendums for years and years and years. Even now, they can barely pay the bills on the new building, and if a staffer leaves, they cannot hire anyone new.
posted by agregoli at 6:32 AM on November 21, 2003

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