The Future Of Libraries

Roderick (also, check out Roderick’s new blog) forwarded me a story about the challenges facing academic libraries from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The author, Dennis Dillon, whose full title is associate director for research services at the libraries of the University of Texas at Austin, begins by relating a conversation:

“Couldn’t you move your technology to Mumbai and hire some English-speaking Indian librarians to catalog the books and answer reference questions over the Web?”

I mumbled that that was possible. Then I added a bit defensively, “We could also hire Indian faculty members to teach our students via distance education, and save even more money.”

It’s a question that all academic institutions are going to have to face sooner or later. Sir Alfred North Whitehead’s essay “Universities and Their Function” is well quoted, at least the bit that says “so far as the mere imparting of information is concerned, no university has had any justification for existence since the popularization of printing in the 15th century.”

But Whitehead wasn’t denouncing academia. University of Kansas Chancellor Robert Hemenway, in his 1996 inauguration speech, explained:

The justification for a university, said Whitehead, is that it preserves the connection between knowledge and “zest for life” by uniting young and old in “the imaginative consideration of learning.” What does this mean? Is this some empty rhetorical flourish? I don’t think so. It means, says Whitehead, that the “atmosphere of excitement arising from imaginative consideration transforms knowledge. A fact is no longer a bare fact. It is invested with all its possibilities.”

It’s probably fair to say that the human component of education will remain valuable for some time. That is, it will remain important so long as “education” does not become a synonym for “training.”

This still leaves the question of how we value “place,” though I wouldn’t dare to predict how we may eventually judge that.

What Dillon holds at stake is the future of libraries, and maybe the future of books:

Over the last dozen years my university has added some 150 faculty positions, while we have been unable to increase the number of books we purchase, and we have had to reduce by several thousand the number of journals we subscribe to. Of course, increases in the cost of journals are partially to blame. But the information pie keeps getting bigger, and the slice of that pie that any library can afford to buy keeps getting smaller.

Dillon acknowledges the role of technology, the development of online databases that are largely replacing libraries’ reference and journal collections, but he seems to view technology with contempt.

The book on Milton that cost a library $4.95 in 1974 has been replaced by literary multimedia databases that cost libraries $20,000 a year. Unfortunately, library budgets have not kept pace with those changes.

What he fails to say here is that the database covers thousands of authors and replaces not just that one book, but hundreds of books that were often updated annually. Libraries are no strangers to annual purchases, after all, don’t you expect your library to have the latest encyclopedias and dictionaries? Academic libraries often used to maintain sever dozen standing orders for such series as Contemporary Literary Criticism, Music Criticism, Encyclopaedia Britannica. There are, in fact, 951 titles in my library that begin with “Encyclopedia.” All of these will be out of date at some point, and when the time comes to decide to replace them, a librarian will be able to chose from pulp volumes and online versions.
Dillon’s conclusion is somewhat disingenuous, or ignorant:

Here are the certainties: People will continue to write books, people will continue to read books, and the academic-publishing process needs to be reformed so that we can continue to meet our goal of scholarly communication in an economically sustainable way.

By putting the responsibility on publishers and content providers, Dillon seems to ignore any role he or libraries may have in crafting the future. The following may sound somewhat alarmist, but if commercial interests had their way, libraries wouldn’t exist at all, and each reader would pay for every word consumed.

Technology has already changed libraries, and it will continue to change libraries for all time. What’s needed are people who understand the value of both the technology and libraries’ role in education. So Dillon is right to say that change is coming. Maybe it’s just my own youth and ignorance that makes me look forward to it.

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