Is the future of libraries local and unique?

About a week ago, I came across a talk by Eli Neiburger in two parts (included below) that is widely referred to as “How Libraries are Screwed” (the actual title is “How eBooks Impact Libraries,” but the other is more catchy, don’t you think?). Despite having been around since September, I only caught up with this last week.

The talk focuses on the situation for public libraries, and presents a picture of institutions caught between their strong association with the codex (borne out by OCLC’s most recent Perceptions report), and unable to make an effective transition to the eBook due to market factors. The talk is very good, and I urge you to devote the 20 minutes to watch it and consider the implications (which are different but similar for academic libraries).

The part of the talk I do have an issue with is at the end of the second part, when Neiburger says that libraries may evolve into organizations that focus on unique content and local experiences. (This part of the talk is called out a this blog posting over at KeepingTime.) Keeping in mind that the talk is about public libraries, I do not think that this is true. If this were true, we would be seeing a renaissance among historical societies and other local history organizations. I would love to see evidence that supports that.

I do agree that unique materials, and items that document local history, will be valued, but I don’t see that happening in the context of public libraries — I think it’s much more likely to be folded into the academic library sector, where special collections have already been established.

And if you doubt the eBook market implications for public libraries take a look at this whitepaper by Overdrive (the major provider of eBooks to public libraries) which essentially says that public libraries will be great for eBook sales because they will never be able to fill demand. This choice quote neatly sums it up: “Libraries are simply not meeting demand for eBooks, but they are whetting the consumer appetite.”

To end on a positive note, in pulling together materials for this post, I ran across a new organization called Library Renewal, which seeks to coelese effort around getting e-content flowing to libraries.

Thanks to Eric Hellman for highlighting the Eli Neiburger talk and to Cliff Lynch for calling my attention to the Overdrive report.

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3 Comments

  1. I’m willing to wait and see on this one. I think this might dovetail nicely with growing concerns about “personal digital archiving” to create a new service AND collection area for public libraries.

  2. I think there is a great opportunity here for public libraries. They need to begin moving along the collaboration continuum with local historical societies, museums, and other cultural organizations.

  3. Dorothea, it’s a nice thought but curation doesn’t fit neatly within the current skillset required by the publics. I’m not entirely sure what you (or me, or anyone for that matter) thinks “personal digital archiving” might be, but it’s going to be expensive. There’s a commercial service out there offering forever service (Chronicle of Life) that would run $12K for a single 12 gig iPhoto collection, which is not even particularly large. Building our own won’t bring costs down.

    Michael, I agree that there’s an opportunity for collaboration and I hope all the relevant players find one another and combine and amplify their skills!

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