The Digital Age, Books, and Libraries

There’s a lot of flag waving (especially by alarmed librarians) about the imminent demise of the book and libraries.  Actually, that’s not true.  The librarians are trying to fend off those who are buying into the idea that printed books, and libraries as we used to know them, are pointless vestiges of a prior era.  The debate has been picked up by the New York Times, which is getting a lot of press (sorry) lately.

The biggest issue, which is only obliquely hinted at in the arguments floating around, especially those in the Times opinion piece, is accessibility. I have a book. No one anywhere can prevent me from sharing that book with you. No one anywhere can prevent you from sharing that book with someone else (once it’s in your possession). Granted, this is a single item, with geospatial limitations which can be transcended by electronic networks. But “electronic” has its own, more restrictive limitations. Does one have access to the electronic network? Does one have the equipment to access the electronic network? Is there a power source to enable access to the equipment (or network)? Does one have permission to access the electronic device/network/item?

Librarianship has always been about finding and gaining access to books/information. The interesting twist today is the gaining access part, which involves navigating rights and permissions, as well as delivery options: both print (is there a printer?) and electronic (does the recipient even have the means to access an electronic version?).

The discussion in the NYTimes column (and others) focuses on universities and private schools, essentially ignoring that part of the population that is (a) less educated, (b) less affluent, (c) less technologically savvy, and (d) any combination of the above. My guesstimate, from experience and prior research, is that those categories make up a significant minority of the US population (maybe up to 40%), and likely always will.

So to the issue of accessibility, add disenfranchisement.  Where will the have-nots get what the haves are being taught to take for granted?  Those “pointless” vestiges of a prior era really aren’t so pointless after all.

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