Friday, October 28, 2011

Libraries: Between a Codex and a Hard Place

Recently I attended a conference for New Jersey reference librarians entitled: "No Turning Back: Moving Forward in the Digital Age." In the face of the increasing digitizing of the information world, with e-books, e-readers, downloadable books, reference book databases online, library catalogs and websites available on smartphones and so on, librarians today are confronted with a rapidly changing world. In the face of this challenge, librarians did what we do second best: we had a meeting. This is the situation as it is now.  Public libraries serve the younger generation, the so-called digital natives who have grown up with cell phones and computers. Libraries also serve a large population of patrons who are not computer literate or who lack access to computers. Libraries should offer access to books and information in two formats: digital and pre-digital. Straddling these two worlds can get costly. For example, the Berkeley Heights Public Library has the revered Encyclopedia Britannica sitting on the shelves in the Reference Department and the online version is available from the library website's Databases and Articles page. The same arrangement, having online and on-the-shelf versions of books and reference books, is common but not universal throughout the collection. To take another example: the library owns two hardcover copies of John Grisham's latest bestseller Litigation, one copy in large print, and one audiobook version on CD. Plus five copies of the book are available as a downloadable audiobook from ListenNJ which Berkeley Heights Library patrons can use. Depending on budgets and availability and demand, ListenNJ may also add an ebook version of Litigation. The principle idea of public libraries: to acquire and make available books and other educational and recreational materials to a wide audience for free, is the same as it has always been historically. It's just that the choice of format has changed and grown. And of course the technological and monetary aspects of electronic formats create a challenge for librarians and patrons. More simply put, what should we spend library money on if a book comes in several formats? This is not a new question: trying to achieve a balance in maintaining and building a library collection has always required consideration of the budget, the population served, the content of the work (reviews, how it fits in the collection) and the format (book, music, magazine and now digital versions.)
Back to the conference: librarians, like booksellers and publishers, would like to have a crystal ball to tell us what the future holds not only for books, but also for the future of libraries and related institutions. The conference did not provide answers, probably because there are no answers. When did buggy whip manufacturers realize they were on the way out, the Dodo of 19th century technology? Did the buggy whip makers start to diversify early enough to save their livelihoods? Maybe some started making automobile parts if they were really flexible and prescient in their outlook. That's what anyone in the book business or in a wider sense, the information business, has to do: be flexible, stay informed and stay-tuned.
If having a meeting is what librarians do second best, what is it we do best? For reference librarians, we hope we help our patrons find the information they need when they need it and in the format which they prefer. Just ask, we're here to help and all of us are between a codex and a hard place.

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