Libraries and the Future of Publishing

Last updated: July 3, 2013

Introduction to Libraries and the Future of Publishing

Like the rest of the publishing and information industries, libraries face an ongoing struggle to redefine their roles in this era of disruptive media transition. Libraries continue to vigorously explore a host of options, from offering free online access to the web and online access to (traditionally expensive) proprietary databases, to a host of other media: music, films and more.

Certainly as of this writing there is a vast amount of published material that can still not be accessed on the Internet, certainly not for free, often not at all. But these protected publications tend to serve the community of scholars more than the public at large.

The Modern Development of Libraries

As print extended its reach, philanthropists like the American Andrew Carnegie, reinvigorated the library as a purveyor of information to a broad public. (According to Wikipedia, “of the 2,509 libraries (Carnegie) funded between 1883 and 1929, 1,689 were built in the United States, 660 in Britain and Ireland, 156 in Canada, and others in Australia, New Zealand, Serbia, the Caribbean, and Fiji). This had a tremendous impact on making books more widely (and inexpensively) available to the public.

While some publishing efforts, like the paperback book, made literature and other information widely available without a guarded repository such as a library, throughout the ages, up until today, some of the most important data has been controlled by private companies that charge exorbitant fees for access. Colleges and universities, and sometimes the public library, were mechanisms whereby students and an interested public could get past these fees on an individual basis.

It has been an interesting transition. “Library science,” a creation of the modern information era, reflects as much the complex ways that information is offered to the public as it does the complexity of the information itself. Google has probably been the most anarchic of the information developments impacting the public library.

While unquestionably a well-trained librarian can outperform your average Googler, your average Googler can gain access to far more information than the untrained searcher of the pre-web era.

What business model should libraries best emulate? Should they work with proprietary information providers to ensure that certain data can only be accessed through public institutions or at great cost privately? Should they become masters of all data available through all public and private sources: become maestros of information retrieval? It’s hard to say.

The role of libraries as we know them today is surely in question, and will continue to rapidly evolve in the years to come.

The Alexandria Library

The most fascinating and perhaps most representative story about the changing roles of libraries is the reopening of Egypt’s Alexandria Library, launched with great fanfare in late 2002 after a 1,600-year hiatus. Rechristened the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, it had been a beacon of knowledge for the ancient world over a span of seven centuries before its demise in the year AD 415.

Twenty years in the planning and built at a cost of more than $200-million (U.S.), the result is an 11-storey building, located on the spot where scholars believe the ancient library stood before it was destroyed. The building was designed to represent the sum of human knowledge, in keeping with the reputation of the Greek Ptolemies, who erected the original in 290 B.C.

The vision statement of the Library of Alexandria is that it “seeks to recapture the spirit of the ancient Library of Alexandria and aspires to be:

* The world’s window on Egypt
* Egypt’s window on the world
* An instrument for rising to the challenges of the digital age; and, above all
* A center for dialogue between peoples and civilizations

You don’t have to go to Egypt to enjoy this developing resource. Start with the website.

The Digital Library

In early 2005, the Internet Archive and Yahoo! helped form the Open Content Alliance (OCA) which resulted from “the collaborative efforts of a group of cultural, technology, nonprofit, and governmental organizations from around the world that will help build a permanent archive of multilingual digitized text and multimedia content…as a way to offer broad, public access to a rich panorama of world culture.”

This was the beginning of a major cross-organizational effort to digitize library holdings and make them accessible via the web. (This particular initiative appears to have stalled.)

A large number of libraries joined, and then Google and Microsoft got into the act to offer what could be considered complementary or competitive programs. Microsoft dropped out of the game in May 2008, but Google is going strong. At the same time, there are numerous smaller initiatives with essentially the same goal, albeit on a more proprietary basis.

There is a bottom line. First, there is the enormous issue of works that are still protected by copyright and those which are not. Both Google and Amazon have programs available to publishers for “searching within the book.” These are largely founded not on scholarship, but the notion that allowing the public access to the (selected and somewhat-protected) content of copyrighted works will enhance the likelihood that they may publish the full printed or eBook version. Second is the issue of what the impact will be on libraries when their holdings on non-copyrighted works become freely available on the web. Whatever its shortcomings, when it comes to older references, the web offers better tools for searching through masses of content than sitting in a dimly-lit room, struggling with great effort through indexes.

The struggle is ongoing, and will be for some time. But it appears to me inevitable that soon all non-copyrighted publications will be accessible via the web, and it’s only a matter of time until copyrighted material is similarly accessible.

I don’t think that this negates the role of librarians or of libraries. But a challenge is emerging.

References

1. The Associations

Each of these professional organizations strikes me as primarily advocacy groups for their profession, although all host a range of background data and reports.

(i) “The American Library Association is the oldest and largest library association in the world, with more than 65,000 members. Its mission is to promote the highest quality library and information services and public access to information.”

(ii) “The Canadian Library Association/Association canadienne des bibliothèques is an award-winning not-for-profit organization, serving as the national voice of the Canadian library and information community and delivering a range of value-added services to professional librarians, library technicians, and the organizations that employ them.

(iii) “IFLA (The International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions) is the leading international body representing the interests of library and information services and their users. It is the global voice of the library and information profession.

(iv) “The Special Libraries Association (SLA) is a nonprofit global organization for innovative information professionals and their strategic partners. SLA serves more than 11,000 members in 75 countries in the information profession, including corporate, academic and government information specialists.”

2. The Google Library Project

Hal Varian, a respected information specialist, now on staff at Google (as chief economist), examines that company’s efforts in digitizing library holdings (PDF).