Sunday, September 20, 2009

“I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” -- Benjamin Disraeli

After my last post about e-books and e-readers, I saw a flurry of other articles and posts about the future of books, print, digital content and libraries. It’ll be no surprise to my readers that the points of view ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other.

In particular, Cushing Academy made quite a stir when they went completely digital. James Tracy, headmaster of Cushing stated in a Boston Globe article:
"When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books. This isn’t ‘Fahrenheit 451’ [the 1953 Ray Bradbury novel in which books are banned]. We’re not discouraging students from reading. We see this as a natural way to shape emerging trends and optimize technology."
This, of course, drew all kinds of spirited responses, including some from Keith Fiels, executive director of ALA. I’m afraid I found Mr. Fiels remarks somewhat uniformed. He first indicates that e-readers and books aren’t free. To which one must of course ask, since when are printed ones free? Of course, I understand that once purchased printed books can be used by many others for a fairly low cost, at least to the library (and thus the taxpayer). But his remark seems to indicate that he isn’t up-to-date on how some of the e-book manufacturers (Sony most notably) are working quite diligently to make e-readers and e-books work for libraries in much the same way. Mr Fiels goes on to note “it may become more difficult for students to happen on books with the serendipity made possible by physical browsing.” I would strongly suggest that Mr. Fiels spend some times with students and see how they browse collections today be it music, books, photos, videos or any other digital media, outside or inside of a library. It’s done VIRTUALLY. Of course Mr. Fiels wasn’t alone in expressing concern. Many other people reacted in similar (and different) ways.

However, the reality is that this is not the first time something of this nature has happened, nor will it be the last. Back in 2005, the University of Texas at Austin, under the leadership of Fred Heath made quite a stir when they announced that they were making one campus entirely digital. More recently, the University of Connecticut at Bridgeport did something similar when Diane Mirvis converted the first floor of their university library to a digital learning commons with no books in sight (which, I might add, uses PRIMO as the centerpiece of this new digital learning environment). There are probably countless other examples.

These conversions will continue as time marches forward. Slowly, but steadily they will go on until they are no longer noted because they’re no longer newsworthy. In fact, in reading all these links, the thing that struck me was that the users of the libraries find it all rather mundane. They’re expecting it and welcome it, saying simply “it’s the future”.

The point was further underscored for me this week, when a friend and colleague, Ian Dolphin, pointed me towards the Shared Services Feasibility Study by SCONUL. While interesting reading for a variety of reasons, in particular this survey of 83 higher education institutions in the United Kingdom, showed “the strongest focus is on adopting digital solutions and electronic content to reduce physical holdings and therefore space.”

Taken in totality, all of it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes by Benjamin Disraeli, a former British Prime Minister:
"I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?"
Which is my way of saying that I hope as librarians, we will allow ourselves to be lead by those who understand where people want to go.