Sunday, September 30, 2012

PL 39/12: The rise and fall of digital libraries

Filed under: debate, library 2.0 — plinius @ 12:50 pm

Steve Coffman has written an articulate and provocative article on recent projects, fads and trends in the library field.

Plinius concurs. I’ve tried to study the fate of Norwegian digital library projects, and have come to similar conclusions. Like Coffman, I have also been engaged in several of these projects. Below I have cut-and-pasted some of his more incisive statements:

  • The past 30 years of library history is littered with projects and plans and sometimes just dreams of ways the library might play a more pivotal role in the digital revolution …
  • Some of those projects never really got off the ground.

Web Directories

There were lots of collaborative projects to develop “librarian-built” directories of web resources.

  • The Librarians Index to the internet is a good example from the public library side, and the Infomine project at the University of California–Riverside is an example of many from the academic side.
  • Many of these projects were grant-funded and died off when the money ran out.
  • Some still linger — used mostly by librarians, as they have always been — as the rest of the world rushes right by our (sometimes) carefully tended websites and directories on the way to Google, Bing, and other search engines.

Library 2.0

Library 2.0 was intended to allow library users to interact with librarians and each other online using a variety of new social tools developed for the web. …

  • It seems that any conversations we may be having are largely with ourselves, while our patrons are busy contributing reviews and doing all sorts of other cool, interactive things on Amazon, Goodreads, LibraryThing, and the hundreds of other places people get together online to compare notes on books. …
  •  I think the reason Web 2.0 technologies have not taken off on library sites is not because people don’t love us — they do, they tell us so all the time.
  • It’s because libraries are preeminently local institutions and our websites attract a limited number of people primarily from the local community.

Virtual Reference

Some concepts that have gotten librarians all excited have clearly not interested the patrons we hoped to serve.

  • The classic example here is virtual reference. … I ought to know: I was selling virtual reference technology at the time. We were helping libraries set up new virtual reference services on almost a weekly basis, 
  • All of this was accompanied, of course, by a deluge of conference sessions, papers, and articles on every conceivable minutia of virtual reference. 
  • The problem is, when we gleefully flung open the doors of our brand new and pretty costly virtual reference services, we found we’d thrown a party but nobody came.

Intermediated Searching

Libraries have continued to make many of the original proprietary databases available through our websites, but patrons now search them on their own. …

  • Of course, you may point out that people still need research assistance for those situations when Google isn’t enough or when the information can’t be found online at all. This is the “we may not need libraries, but we’ll always need librarians” argument.
  • But there’s nothing that says librarians will be called upon to do the research. After all, research skills have been part and parcel of many professions from the beginning: Lawyers, journalists, historians, doctors, scientists, writers — you name it —have done research too.  …
  • Now that searching is as easy as typing words in a box, knowledge of the subject area is far more important than an understanding of Boolean logic or arcane command languages. Future researchers are much more likely to come directly from the ranks of the professions they serve than from library science programs. …

It was a great ride while it lasted, but the library as a research center — staffed by highly skilled librarians who alone could unlock its secrets — has come and gone. 

Public Access Computing

This same process may be at work undermining another core library service — public access computing ….

  • That gap got named the “digital divide” and public libraries set about trying to bridge it — with a lot of help from the Gates Foundation.
  • Statistics show libraries have done a pretty good job providing public access computing. Today, nearly 100% of all public libraries offer public internet access. …
  • However, a growing body of evidence suggests that — despite our impressive accomplishments — the days of the public internet access PCs in libraries may be numbered. 
  • IMLS statistics for 2008 and 2009 show that, although there were large increases in the number of public access PCs available in libraries in both those years, per-capita usage of PCs actually declined from 1.22 in 2007 to 1.21 in 2008

That, coupled with the increasingly empty computer stations at some of our more affluent libraries, is enough to suggest people are finding new and more convenient ways to get on the internet and that our longtime role in bridging the digital divide may be coming to an end.


This is a long section – please read it for yourself

The Electric Library

So after more than 50 years in the digital market, libraries have come right back to where they started. Our dream of an electronic library has been built, but others own and manage it.

  • We are left with the tangible property we began with, our physical books, the thousands of buildings that house them, and the millions of people still coming through our doors to use them.
  • Figuring out how to exploit those assets in this new environment will not be easy. Perhaps we should turn our attention away from the electric library that others have built and focus on the real books and buildings that made us what we were to begin with.
  • Perhaps that will continue to define us into the future.

Or perhaps not. 



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