Future Libraries: What Will The Reality Be?

I recently read Future Libraries: Dreams, Madness & Reality, co-written in 1995 by the estimable Walt Crawford and Michael Gorman. I’m still coming up to speed on the implications of digital publishing for libraries, so it was extremely helpful to read this work, focusing on the intersection of digital technologies and the manifold missions of libraries. The general thrust of the book – caution against a “TechnoLust” view of technology as a panacea and the hasty conclusion that physical libraries are soon going away – was clearly prescient in 1995, predating by several years the boom and subsequent bust of “eBooks 1.0″. Paper is clearly still the preferred reading medium in 2006. Our family is lucky to live a few blocks from a fantastic public library and it’s very much part of our world. Staff, space, and collections.
Yet at the same time so much has changed in the last 10 years that many of the specific points in this book now appear quaintly conservative. There’ s a lot of “no forseeable…” things that have in fact happened in a short few years – and the thesis that “in the unimaginable world of 2094, the library might be recognizable to a library user of today” is, to me, unimaginable.
I think it’s interesting look at what’s happened in the last decade as some guide to how much further things could change over the next. By 2015, will we arrive at, if not an “all-electronic future”, a world in which electronic distribution and consumption of texts is broadly adopted? Will the displacement of paper, for immersive reading as well as information retrieval, be well under way? I wonder what Messrs. Crawford and Gorman think now?
Some of the 20-20 hindsight points in this book are:
- No mention of HTML, HTTP or the Web. A year after Netscape’s founding, they are still talking about WAIS and Gopher, and calling the Internet the “I-Way”. A decade hence will unimaginable progress cause current discourses on “Web 2.0″ and AJAX to sound as off-key?
- Skepticism about text string searching. “it is entirely possible that there is no universal solution… that allows the user to treat the entire collection of material as a single searchable entry and hope to make effective use of the results.” Google was still a few years off but AltaVista launched the year this was published, and was soon being used by millions of people.
- Elitism of PC/Internet access. Clearly there is still a Digital Divide. Yet, on a global basis, access to Internet-connected PCs and especially Internet-enabled phones is far more prevalent in 2006 than access to “mid-sized” libraries of 50,000 volumes, or good bookstores. We don’t have the $100 laptop yet but we will have the $50 laptop this decade – and it will open the portal to reading millions of works, for the price of a handful of physical books.
- Electronic journals viewed as a “murky” niche of questionable imprimatur. Today major academic journal publishers make the majority of their revenue from “e-only” subscriptions, and dual electronic/print subscriptions are most of the rest. Not only have respected, refereed journals gone electronic, but with “open access” and prepublication articles today’s world of research is a very different world in which physical distribution of printed copies is fast becoming secondary.
- Scanning of magazines impractical. Their numbers of 22MB per page after compression were based on a compression estimate of “25 percent of the original size” – they call this an “optimistic” figure but with the rise of JPEG2000, JBG2 and other more aggressive compression technologies of course this was really a very conservative figure. And, we are now poised to have terabyte+ storage on desktop PCs, and outrageous numbers like “168 gigabytes per year” are now measured in tens or hundreds of dollars. In fact their example of the New Yorker magazine to illustrate the impracticality of digital replicas of magazines is ironic given that in fact that 80 years of the New Yorker is available to consumers as 8 data DVDs for $63.
- Videodiscs a “trail of failures”. Hint: LaserVision was not the answer.
- CRTs entrenched and “the gap between CRTs and thin-screen devices seems to be growing”.
OK it’s perhaps unfair to pick on specific points like these. But I do think they point out just how rapidly things change. I am already e-reading for pleasure quite happily on a QVGA (320×240) PDA/phone and a Sony Reader makes e-reading for me just about equivalent to paper (better, in some respects). 10 years from now when the average smartphone has a full wallet-size XVGA-resolution display (if not a heads-up display), and electronic paper displays are $5 a sheet, will paper still represent 99% of the global reading consumption? Personally, I think it will be more like 70% and falling.
One key point is the understimation of true cost of physical books, especially in the global context. Messrs. Crawford and Gorman make the common mistake of considering just the direct costs of physical printing and distribution and coming with a low estimate for the % of the price of a book these costs represent. But the real point is that these costs and the nature of the physical book artifact multiply by several times the ultimate price that consumers and libraries pay for books. The storage and transportation of physical books and the attendant extra layers of distribution channel (wholesalers, etc.) not only make books and libraries expensive for consumers, but prohibitively expensive to those in the developing world that lack the necessary infrastructure. Not to mention the environmental costs. And one thing is for sure: while a lot of things have gotten cheaper since 1995, the retail price of books is not one of them.