The author spent her childhood in a library much like the original Dallas Public Library (pictured above). But will the next generation go to a building like this one to get information? (Photo credit: Jason Grant.)
“The advent of the digital world has revolutionized how the public obtains its information.” How many times have you read some variation of this statement? General consensus assumes this observation to be fact. Thus, it comes as no surprise that the battle over equal access to and diversity of information graces mainstream headlines quite frequently—from the Wall Street Journal’s recent coverage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act exemptionsto a San Francisco Chronicle article entitled “Demolition of Berkeley branch libraries fought.” And, in the influx of information-related news, an unassuming institution is emerging as a key driver in the conversation: the library.
I remember visiting my local library as a kid and simultaneously feeling overwhelmed, intimidated and elated by its vastness. The physicality of the books it housed and of the institution itself continues to define my perception of a library. All references to Habermasaside, the library serves as a public space and a collection of indispensable material for the common use. To think of the library and not conjure up images of endless shelves of books feels like a stretch of the imagination, but as recent news has brought to light (i.e. “How online research can make the grade”; “Camden, N.J., saves its libraries”), the institution has made significant strides into the digital realm. Now, the library extends beyond its walled boundaries to provide unrestricted access to information in various formats.
According to the American Library Association (ALA), which suggests guidelines for the field, the ALA’s mission is “to provide leadership for the development, promotion, and improvement of library and information services and the profession of librarianship in order to enhance learning and ensure access to information for all.”
Let’s focus on the last six words of this statement. To “ensure access to information for all” is a pretty tall order when taking the recent language surrounding copyright, the digital commons and intellectual property issues into consideration. At the intersection of law, economics, culture and technology, these issues are hotly debated and polarizing at the very least. We find industry pitted against consumers and government tasked with negotiating between the two. But, when you take a step back, what better arena is there to have this discussion than in the presence of our nation’s historical information keepers and traditional space of information exchange? The library, whether it is a small-town space or the Library of Congress, sits in a peculiar position as both guardian of content and distributor of information. So, when stories about libraries advocating for open access technologies—such as the D.C. Public Library’s Flickr commons—hit my reader, I can’t help but pause and take notice.
Two things strike me as noteworthy. First, the library (especially the Library of Congress) is faced with the same paradoxical line of reasoning grappling lawyers, technologists and rights holders—how to mitigate the tension between economics, authorship, technology and preservation of culture. For example, placing a document online may guarantee easier access, but how can a library effectively police copyright infringement? Moreover, in its function as a legal repository for copyright protection and registration and as the base for the United States Copyright Office, the Library of Congress can pass rulings that effect legislation. The good news is that many library professionals recognize this need and are driving adaptations designed to ensure that libraries remain an integral part of our society’s commitment to equity and access to information.
Second, the ALA motto—“the best reading, for the largest number, at the least cost”—underscores the need for digital access. Moreover, the shift towards increased digital access underscores the need for digital literacy training. Imagine what it must cost to operate your local library. If materials are available online, what are the underlying costs for porting and maintaining this content online? What then is the cost of keeping the original work? That said, what are the trade-offs for when a library lives solely online? The possibilities tug on my nostalgic heartstrings. Balancing cost-saving with the need to promote information is tricky. Logic would have the least costly option rise to the top.
Theoretically, for example, shifting all content online would eliminate traditional overhead and operational costs. Yet, what is often overlooked is the socioeconomic barrier associated with digital access. What about the family that can’t afford a computer or broadband connection? Where will they receive their information?
The growing popularity of a number technologies—mobile computing, digital research communities, e-books—will continue to reduce the amount of printed materials on library shelves. Therefore, it may not be out of scope to think of the library as a place to gain experiences. According to the ALA, libraries of the future will collaborate with universities, research institutions and the publishing industry in order to share costs and create larger, more efficient systems of collecting, organizing, storing and accessing information. Libraries are also going mobile. For example, The New York Public Library has released its mobile beta site, which supports open access catalogs (OPACs). Meanwhile, the District of Columbia Library has developed an iPhone application that includes mobile OPAC and the ability to place items on hold and information on hours and locations.
At MPI, we continuously examine the role of information hubs, like libraries, when considering a community’s overall information health. Like librarians, we too see the benefits and challenges associated with adopting digital practices. But, it is in these considerations that we find a healthy discourse for better public policy. If you’re interested in more information, make sure to check out our latest information ecology case studies for: Washington, D.C.; Scranton, PA and Seattle, WA.