Digital Digest: Libraries Reinvent to Stay Relevant

Adrian Versteegh
From the September/October 2010 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

Over the last three years, the San Francisco–based nonprofit Internet Archive has added more than twenty million records to its Open Library site, compiling a vast, continually evolving wiki-style catalogue that gives users an array of tools for wrangling literary resources. The project kicked off a new phase in late June when it partnered with several libraries across the country to allow e-book lending, taking the next step toward creating a one-stop online portal for digital reading and offering a hint of the new role libraries may play as the screen displaces the printed page.

With Google entering the e-book market, the Open Library and its ilk are being touted as open-source alternatives to the search giant's massive book-scanning endeavor.

Building on the two million texts already made publicly available by the Internet Archive, the Open Library now boasts free access to seventy thousand in-copyright works hosted by the e-book distribution service OverDrive. From individual book records, patrons can click through to view electronic editions and—provided their local library subscribes to the OverDrive database, as over eleven thousand currently do—download the work to a computer or portable reading device. In one respect, the digital system mirrors its bricks-and-mortar counterpart: Simultaneous loans of a single title are restricted to the number of available copies or, in this case, licenses. Copy-protection software by Adobe ensures that checked-out books are automatically "returned" when the two-week borrowing period lapses.

The Open Library also offers scanned editions of several hundred works previously accessible only to on-site researchers, thanks to partnerships with the Marine Biological Laboratory; the Allen County Public Library in Fort Wayne, Indiana; Universidad Francisco Marroquín in Guatemala City, Guatemala; and, fittingly, the Boston Public Library—the nation's oldest. "As the first American library to lend books, we believe it is only fitting that we extend and upgrade this basic, yet crucial service in the digital age," says Thomas Blake, Boston's digital projects manager. "We hold the third-largest research collection in the country, much of which is available at our buildings only during business hours. Digital lending allows us to circulate these rare, precious, and unique holdings into our local neighborhoods and beyond—anytime, anywhere, free to all."

But electronic circulation is only one stage in the long-term reinvention of the library. As the ubiquity of information becomes less an ideal and more an expectation, librarians have been scrambling to update their job descriptions. The Library 101 project, a collection of essays and other online resources devoted to the digital shift, curated by librarians David Lee King and Michael Porter, stresses the imminent necessity of a skill set that would have been unthinkable for a librarian just a few years ago: Web design, social networking, digital media editing, and even marketing and promotion.

For now, the "foot-in-both-eras" approach predominates. Libraries—especially of the academic variety—are increasingly adopting print-on-demand technology as a means of expanding catalogues without sacrificing the appeal of the printed page. According to a survey conducted last year by the American Library Association, two-thirds of public libraries have begun offering e-book loans. For-profit businesses are taking note, with Silicon Valley content provider Ebrary rolling out an e-book subscription platform for public libraries, and Sony marking Library Advocacy Day on June 29 by donating e-readers and training (using their own devices, naturally) to libraries pursuing what the company calls "robust" e-book programs. Still, buying in to new technology can strain already-thinning budgets, diverting resources from traditional library services. "E-book readers are still big-ticket items," Amy Chow, vice president of the Hudson Valley Library Association, told eBookNewser. "It is sometimes difficult to justify the purchase of such an expensive device, comparatively speaking, that has such limited usage. Only one person can use an e-reader at a time."

A few institutions have opted to dive headfirst—or are perhaps being pushed—into the digital sea. Last spring, Stanford University began work on its first "bookless" library, essentially a high-tech lounge stocked with computers and Kindle e-readers. Similar limitations on space, along with the shift in mind-set from acquisition to access, are spurring Harvard (which, like many universities, warehouses much of its collection off site) to deliver more of its books to students as electronic scans. And, thanks to a recent donation, Cambridge University Library has announced plans to create a seven-million-volume "digital library for the world." Hundreds of such e-libraries—both free and subscription-supported—joined forces this summer at the fifth annual World eBook Fair, a monthlong virtual event at which readers could choose among more than 3.5 million downloadable titles.

With Google entering the e-book market, the Open Library and its ilk are being touted as open-source alternatives to the search giant's massive book-scanning endeavor, which has drawn fire for its library subscription policies and potential monopoly over so-called copyright orphans. But even the nonprofit bona fides of the Internet Archive are no guarantee against future legal snares, particularly when it comes to lending books that are no longer commercially available. "It is not clear what the legal basis of distributing these authors' works would be," Paul Aiken, executive director of the Authors Guild (whose suit against Google begat the endlessly controversial Google Book Settlement), told the Wall Street Journal. "The author's copyright doesn't diminish when a work is out of print."

Others point to the waning fortunes of publicly funded institutions in the wake of the financial crisis as proof that digitization is necessary to secure a future for libraries and to further democratize access. Despite the benisons of new media, however, bricks-and-mortar libraries won't lose their place in the communal heart too quickly: Plans to drastically cut service hours at the New York Public Library (which, coincidentally, offers over ten thousand e-books) had to be scaled back this summer after a surge of protest. Libraries will endure, even as librarians and patrons alike find themselves becoming increasingly comfortable among the digital stacks.                    

Adrian Versteegh is the editorial director of Anamesa. He lives in New York City.

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