Page Runner: Is there a future for libraries?

by David S. Bratman

Originally published in Redwood Coast Review (Point Arena and Gualala, Calif.), Vol. 1, No. 1, Winter 1999, p. 1. The Redwood Coast Review, sponsored by the Friends of Coast Community Library and edited by Stephen Kessler, is the literary supplement to the Independent Coast Observer.


Science fiction often shows us bright, clean, antiseptic futures in which everything is, well, futuristic, and anything from the past has long since been discarded. Did the Jetsons ever read an old-fashioned book? But the real future will be more like the film Blade Runner: plenty of exotic novelties, but the buildings and artifacts of the past don't go away. We live in the future ourselves -- I have a 45-year-old futurology book describing life in 1999 as lived by "John and Emily Future," and many of its dreams have come true, even though we haven't adopted futuristic names to go with them -- but look around you, especially in a small town, and the past is still with us everywhere.

This has plenty to do with libraries, because a library is a collection of books (Latin liber, book), and books are not going away. The Library of Congress is spending millions each year to enter books and other materials into computer-readable format. At this rate it'll take centuries to convert all their current holdings, and they're still adding new books faster than the project can convert them. So it may never be finished. And its purpose is to improve access; it's not for storage.

Computer formats change constantly, and old files become unreadable by new systems. The electronic data on disks decay slowly over time. The plastic in CD-ROMs will become brittle and yellow, and the metal will rust, within 50 years. The computer is a useful tool, but it's not a long-term storage medium. Fifty years ago we were going to compact and preserve our libraries by putting all the books on microfilm. But microfilm reels are a nuisance to use -- reading one is like reverting to an ancient Egyptian papyrus scroll -- and they too become brittle. There is no surer way to preserve words than by printing them out on acid-free paper, binding them between sturdy covers, and storing them in a building with a constant temperature. In other words, a book in a library.

The average public library doesn't need to store all the wisdom of the ages, of course. It's there to provide pleasure reading, continuing education, and useful knowledge. Will mystery novels ever move to monitors? Some companies are working on an electronic device the shape and size of a book, which can store the texts of several books in its computer chip. It's a marvelous idea, but it's been in the works for a long time now and hasn't become practical yet. It may well never be as easy and comfortable to read pixels off a screen as it is to read ink off a page. Even computer engineers tend to print out long documents before reading them. Bill Gates of Microsoft has noticed this; that's why one of his current projects is a grant foundation for libraries.

On-demand publishing is another speculative idea: texts are stored on disk, and the computer prints out and binds it in book form for you. These will be easy to read, and the system solves distribution problems and can keep old books easily in print. But it will be expensive, so you won't order and pay for a copy of every book you want to read. You'll borrow it from a library.

So the library of the foreseeable future will still have plenty of books. But don't think that the computer will have no place there. Even today the computer is ubiquitous in libraries. Most libraries have already replaced their card catalogs with online catalogs. Some people find this dismaying, but it's actually a great improvement. An online catalog is much easier to keep current and accurate than a card catalog. Filing catalog cards is a time-consuming job librarians are glad to leave behind. With well-designed software -- an important if -- an online catalog can be as easy to use as a card catalog, and can also perform searches at the press of a button that would take hours to make with cards. A good catalog can also be used with your home computer, by dial-up, telnet, or the World Wide Web. You can browse the entire catalog from home, even when the library's closed, learn if a book is checked out and automatically place a hold on it if it is.

Many reference books are easier to use when they are put on computers. This is especially true of those bulky, shelf-filling ones that need to be updated often. A magazine index is much simpler when you can search multiple years with a single computer command, instead of pulling down volume after volume from the shelf and looking up the same thing in each one. Much elusive information can be put on CD-ROM or on the Web: phone numbers for the entire country; reference information on subjects the library doesn't have money or space for books on; tourist information on subjects too detailed or fast-changing for guidebooks to carry, like out-of-town bus schedules and street maps of everywhere. The Web is also a great way to get information that's up-to-the-minute, on anything from road closures to stock prices to political scandals.

Computer boosters see a time when everyone will have computers at their homes, if not embedded in their brains, with the capacity to look up everything. But it will be decades, if ever, before everyone can afford the late-model computer equipment needed to run the current databases, plus the phone line and user service charges. It will be just as long before most people are at ease using all these wonderful but complicated tools without help, and know how to get the most out of them. As long as there's a financial need to supply these services, there will be libraries, and as long as people need help using them, there will be librarians. The library is also a social center and gathering place for the community, with more comfortable chairs and better reading material than the grocery store or the post office. And books, of course, will still be there.

So, as long as their communities support them, with both enthusiasm and money, libraries will be around.

David Bratman is a librarian at Stanford University Law School, and an avid reader of science fiction.

Last Updated: March 8, 2001
Copyright 1999, David Bratman