Will the Internet Make Books and Libraries Obsolete?

As a bibliophile, I’m the first to admit that there’s a huge irrational element in my love for books, libraries and bookstores for that matter. And this passion has only grown over time. I’ve always followed my curiosity by buying books, but for many of my last years working at Stanford, with its great bookstore and proximity to many excellent local bookstores, I would buy whole libraries on subjects that interested me: US history, history of WWII, constitutional law, personal essays, Jungian psychology, nutrition, bread baking, bioregionalism, sustainability, poetry, writing, chess, network management, etc. You name it … I was likely to have a collection of books on it. We had bookshelves in nearly every room of our house, and scores of cases of books stored in the garage.

By the time we moved to Grass Valley from Palo Alto a few years ago, we’d pared our collection down to about about eighty cases of books, and the labor of moving them was so great that I felt compelled to give the movers an extra-large tip. After we settled in, we gave Friends of the Library about forty cases of books, and we now have probably another dozen cases to give them. I was happy to give away a small library of a few dozen books on sustainability to the A.P.P.L.E. center, so I can go visit them from time-to-time. They are my old friends, after all.

I know full well that there are different ways to love books. I once heard Mary Ann Trygg, the Nevada County Librarian, a professional bibliophile, tell Jackie Mason in an NCTV interview, that she did not feel a compulsion to buy books, although she is always carrying one back and forth to work.

My  own particular passion for books is a bit of a mystery to me. I sometimes wonder if it doesn’t all hark back to a time when — as a small child — I would often see my father completely lost in a book. His work as a railway postal clerk (a good civil service job during the Depression) took him away from home for three days at a time, as he traveled between Oakland, California and Lovelock, Nevada, sorting mail. And when he was home between trips, he’d often be too tired to be very sociable (just as our mother warned us), so he was hard to reach emotionally. I may have spent my whole life trying to reach him through books. He died in 1980, which means he’s probably still lost in a book somewhere.

Such irrationality would seem to disqualify me from having a credible opinion on the future of books, and on whether the Internet is likely to make physical books and brick-and-mortar libraries obsolete. I would argue, on the contrary, that such irrationality in one form or another is probably at the root of all bibliophilia, and in itself may be the ultimate impediment to the complete triumph of virtual libraries and electronic books.

I spent my entire working life in a technical field, first as a systems programmer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, then as a senior network engineer on the Stanford campus. And yet, the idea that the Internet might someday replace books and libraries has always seemed laughable to me, nothing more than a techno-fantasy, a notion that will someday be remembered as a quaint relic of those years when oil and electricity were still cheap, and the electric grid was still reliable.

On the subject of book obsolescence, I’m definitely an unapologetic Luddite.

Well, now I find another unapologetic Luddite, Will Sherman, who has studied this subject thoroughly and thought about it much more deeply than I have. He’s written “33 Reasons Why Libraries and Librarians are Still Extremely Important.”

His first three reasons were enough to convince me that I’m right to laugh at the techno-fantasy.

There is much in his essay, by the way, that copiously supports the local opponents of outsourcing, who are — in vast numbers in this county, apparently — also determined bibliophiles.

Here’s a sampling:

1. Not everything is available on the internet
The amazing amount of useful information on the web has, for some, engendered the false assumption everything can be found online. It’s simply not true.

Google Book Search recognizes this. That’s why they’re taking on the monolith task of digitizing millions of books from the World’s largest libraries. But even if Google does successfully digitize the sum of human knowledge, it is unlikely that the sum of contemporary authors and publishers will not allow their works to be freely accessible over the internet. It is already prohibited by law to make copyrighted books fully accessible through Google Book Search; only snippets. And it’ll be a long time before that must-read New York Times bestseller gets put up for free on the internet: current copyright law protects works for 70 years beyond the death of the author.

Even some public domain works are off limits. If an out-of-copyright copy includes prefaces, introductions, or appendices that are still in copyright, the whole work falls under copyrighted status.

3. The internet isn’t free
While Project Gutenberg boasts 20,000 free, downloadable eBooks on its homepage, we are promptly reminded that these books are only accessible because they are no longer in copyright.

And books are just the tip of the iceberg. Numerous academic research papers, journals and other important materials are virtually inaccessible to someone seeking to pull them off the web for free. Rather, access is restricted to expensive subscription accounts, which are typically paid for by libraries. Visiting the library in person, or logging in to the library through your member account, is therefore the only way to affordably access necessary archived resources.

10. Mobile devices aren’t the end of books, or libraries
Predictions of the End of the Book are a predictable response to digitization and other technologies, and the crystal ball of some in the pro-paper crowd seems to also reveal a concomitant crumbling of civilization.

One of the latest dark threats to paper (and society) seems to be Google’s plan to make e-books downloadable to mobile devices. The iPod version of the novel is here. Google has already scanned a million books. Japanese train commuters are reading entire bestsellers on their cell phones. The end is near.

But if the mobile e-book is a hit and a lasting phenomenon, it’s unlikely that they will be an all-consuming transition for readers. Radio lives on despite TV, film is still in high demand despite video, people still talk on the telephone despite email. People who like paper books will continue to read paper books”¦even if mobile downloads prompt the majority of publishers to release e-books instead of paper. After all, an immense backlog of printed books will still be accessible to readers.

11. The hype might really just be hype
Paper books aren’t exactly doomed, even years after the invention of the e-book. In fact, by contrasting the merits of the e-book to those of the paper book, one could argue that paper books are actually a better product.

It would be premature to write off libraries and their freely accessible books amidst predictions of e-books’ impending prominence. Society could lose valuable access to a trusted medium – even if e-books do take off.

Read Sherman’s essay in full. It’s well worth it.

He even calculates how many hundreds of years Google will take to digitize just its first 100 million books. Check it out. Really interesting.

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