Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Libraries Going Digital

image licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0, obtained from http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:SanDiegoCityCollegeLearingRecourceCity-bookshelf.jpgAccessing the full text of books online is nothing new. One can peruse the digital shelves of such sites as the World Digital Library, the International Children's Digital Library, the University of Pennsylvania's Online Books Pages, or even The New York Public Library, which is working with Google Books to offer a searchable subset of their collection online.

Therein, though, lies the kicker: these so-called digital libraries are incomplete. Though a somewhat quick perusal of the NYPL's online catalog was impressive, the fact that they maintain an "e" catalog separate from the main one tells me their digital collection differs from what you might find by walking into the actual library.

That might be true of the NYPL, but not so for the library of Cushing Academy. You see, Cushing is going digital, all-the-way:

This year, after having amassed a collection of more than 20,000 books, officials at the pristine campus about 90 minutes west of Boston have decided the 144-year-old school no longer needs a traditional library. The academy’s administrators have decided to discard all their books and have given away half of what stocked their sprawling stacks - the classics, novels, poetry, biographies, tomes on every subject from the humanities to the sciences. The future, they believe, is digital.

The school's headmaster, Dr. James Tracy, is leading this effort. Dr. Tracy believes that printed books are "outdated technology, like scrolls before books".

In place of their traditional library, they are spending $500,000 to create an all-new "learning center". Upon entering this new facility, students will no longer see rows and rows of books, but instead will find:

  • three large flat-screen TVs that will project data from the Internet (at a cost of $42,000 these are obviously Dallas Cowboys-sized screens)
  • special laptop-friendly study carrels (at a cost of $20,000)
  • a coffee shop ($50,000) that will include a $12,000 cappuccino machine
  • 18 electronic readers ($10,000) made by Amazon.com and Sony

(No, I did not make those dollar figures up)

I'll put aside the discussion of why they're turning hallowed reading ground into a social mecca with televisions and coffee shops to instead focus on the switchover of their printed material to an all digital library. There's no doubt the world is going digital more and more, so it's not surprising to see this happen. Convenience, accessibility, sheer breadth of titles are all good reasons for this. Also, as technology for digital readers continues to evolve, and as the readers themselves become more affordable, we'll continue to see growth in the e-book space. But will we ever reach the point where physical libraries either do not exist or exist exclusively as meeting places for people who share a common desire to learn (while sipping coffee made by a $12,000 cappuccino machine, of course)?

I have to say that personally I really have nothing against an all-digital world. While I continue to read printed books daily, I haven't set foot in a library since I graduated college. In fact, as I was performing some research for this post, I became impressed enough with the NYPL's digital catalog that I might sign up for a library card (or is it library e-card?) as soon as I'm done here. One of the most amazing aspects of this is that I don't live anywhere near New York, nor will I ever have to set foot into their library to take advantage of their catalog.

At some point, I plan to buy a Kindle or similar e-book reader. At that time, I may very well never buy another printed book again. You can bet that as successive generations become more familiar with e-Ink than the kind that comes from a printing press, that the perception of what a book is will change.

So, too, then will libraries.



Comments (4) -

  • Steven Till

    9/25/2009 2:31:43 PM | Reply

    As I was reading this, I was thinking I would hate to see all libraries go completely digital. And then I read your comment about not setting foot in a library since college, and I got to thinking ... neither have I. At least not to sit down and do research or check out a book. Actually, now that I think about it, I did check out a sci-fi book a couple of years ago, but that's the last one I can remember. Now, I have been in libraries to check out audio books. I've done that many times since college. Still, even with all digital libraries, I would probably do most of my research from my home PC or in a coffee shop somewhere with my laptop. I'm not sure it would make me visit libraries any more than I do now.

  • Scott Marlowe

    9/28/2009 5:09:36 AM | Reply

    One of the things I liked about the New York Public Library's setup is that you [i]can[/i] download audio books, which seems far more appealing to me than downloading the digital version of a printed book. Again, though, no need to actually visit the library itself.

    But I was thinking the same thing as I wrote the post--that at first I would hate to see the traditional library go away. But then I got to thinking, "What do I care? I never go to libraries..." My first thought when researching or looking for some bit of knowledge is "internet".

  • Steven Till

    9/28/2009 10:36:36 AM | Reply

    How does downloading audio books from a library work? Do you have it for a certain period of time and then you "turn it back in?" I've never done it.

  • Scott Marlowe

    9/28/2009 4:07:46 PM | Reply

    Through the "magic" of DRM. From what I was reading on their site, you have a "checkout period". Once that period is over, the audiobook (or digital book) expires so that you can no longer read it. You have to use, for ex., Adobe Digital Reader to read the .pdf version of a download, which has the magic built into it. Other formats each have their own software.

    The many different digital file formats was something I was planning on blogging about, mainly b/c I want to define in my own mind what all those different formats are.

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