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Preparing for the Long-Term Digital Future of Libraries

Computers in Libraries [January / February 2011] The Systems Librarian

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Let's turn the calendar forward a decade or so and consider that libraries might face relative changes that might take place in the reading and entertainment materials that make up their collections. We can project at least some aspects of this world based on trends well underway today. Although many things could happen to impact the kinds of change and the timetables, it's important to begin thinking now about long-term library futures.

The Shift to Digital Formats

The obvious changes to anticipate involve major shifts toward digital formats, distributed through license arrangements, rather than physical materials available for purchase. Different types of materials created by different publishing niches will each travel toward this destination on their own timeline, but it seems clear, at least by what's happening today, that scholarly journals, newspapers and other periodicals, books, music, and movies are all headed in this common direction.

Serials and periodicals. These kinds of materials were the earliest to get on the track toward all-digital distribution. Even today, most academic libraries have largely experienced the transition of their scholarly journals from print to electronic versions. Many of the university libraries that I'm familiar with have replaced the expansive ranges of bound serials and periodicals with subscription ejournal products. Extensive, often comprehensive, backfiles provide convenient access to this material, though libraries continue to struggle with the rising costs of ejournal content, despite its transformation to fully digital publishing and distribution methods once believed to have the opportunity to drastically reduce expense.

In the scholarly publishing arena, we can anticipate a greater variety of business arrangements, such as open access publishing, where authors pay publishing costs to support perpetual free access to the materials. We might anticipate a vigorous competition between commercial publishers and universities that selfpublish their scholarly output. The scholarly publishing sector has many different dynamics in motion, making it difficult to predict its shape in the relatively long-term future.

Music and other audio materials. The music industry has gone through a tumultuous history since it encountered the digital fray. Today, rampant peer-to-peer sharing outside the bounds of official commerce and copyright restrictions has largely been beaten down, now replaced by legal streaming services. In a decade or so, CDs and other physical media will have largely gone extinct, or at least relegated to the niche of aficionados or collectors. By that time, even lesser-known artists will depend on publishing through internet streaming services rather than CDs or other formats. It seems fairly safe to anticipate an all-digital future for commercial music publishing.

Movies, documentaries, and other video content. These holdings will follow much the same trajectory as music. Streaming video services, which are gaining steam today, will dominate entirely in the years and decades to come. Blu-ray, the latest of the physical media formats for video, may never achieve critical mass before streaming comes to dominate.

Manuscripts and photographs. Manuscripts, photographs, and other historical materials will likewise enjoy benefits through comprehensive digitization in the coming decades. While advanced researchers may continue to appreciate access to the original objects, the vast majority of scholars will find that digital technologies unlock these treasures more than was ever possible in times when constrained by physical access. During my recent visit to Leipzig, for example, I learned how the famous Codex Sinaiticus was published digitally in the last year through a collaboration of The British Library, Leipzig University Library, the National Library of Russia, and the Monastery of St. Catherine in Mount Sinai to bring together many different fragments of an important historic artifact - fragments that had long been separated (http://codex

Books. Often considered the lifeblood of libraries, books will likewise be entirely transformed in the decades to come. It's plausible, if not likely, that in the next decade, all the books ever published will have been digitized. Google seems well on track, barring legal obstacles, to complete its projects underway to digitize millions of books from the world's largest libraries. Many other mass digitizing projects now underway will complement and complete the effort. I anticipate that in 20 years, all new books will be published electronically exclusively rather than in printed form. Once all new books are published digitally, existing library collections will gradually transition away from legacy print collections. Public libraries with collections of materials that turn over fairly quickly will feel the impact of these migrations before academic and research libraries with large static collections will.

To support such a future reality, devices upon which to read electronic books must be ubiquitous and either free or cheap. I can picture a time when revenues associated with content entirely subsidized the costs of ebook readers. In the same way that digital cameras today span options from disposable to high-end professional models, I expect to see devices for ebook content available in the full range of pricing options, beginning with free versions.

That said, it's hard to anticipate a time when physical books go entirely extinct. Some scholars will continue to work with physical materials even when the contents might be available electronically. Even in the long term, I see the benefit in digitizing large research collections more for discovery than for access.

Convergence Abounds

On the technology front, convergence will have blurred, if not eliminated, boundaries among the web, television, and radio. I also expect this converged realm to be delivered through a full range of devices - mobile phones, tablets, notebooks, desktops, and super-sized panels. Looking into the future, I expect the footprint of the screen to become less of a limiting factor in the content and features available to the device.

Content will also converge. Once fully digital, many of the distinctions previously made in formats will blur. Once freed from the association with the printed page, for example, books will no longer be tied to text and still images but might come with enhanced video content and other built-in multimedia features.

I anticipate that the competition today among devices for consuming content will subside in favor of universal interoperability. As the value and differentiation among hardware devices diminishes, distributors might lose any advantage in tying their content to an individual product or platform. Unlike today - when Amazon links its content to the Kindle, Barnes & Noble links to the Nook, and Apple distributes through its family of devices such as the iPad, iPhone, iPod, or iPod touch - the ecommerce systems that distribute content will support all varieties of devices.

New Media, New Business

The transformation that will play out over the next 2 decades will involve shifts away from physical media, which brings a business and legal framework based on access and not so much on ownership. In each of these areas, including books, the prevailing models of commerce will likely involve paying for access under specified conditions rather than ownership of tangible objects. Today when I buy a printed book, a movie published on DVD, or music published on a CD, I can do with it as I please, including lending it to a friend, giving it away, or selling it. Such may not be the case at all in the all-digital future, where consumers license access to content rather than purchase a copy fixed onto some physical media. License agreements may, or may not, allow me to share, transfer, sell, or give away my access.

In the consumer arena in this all-digital future, I can picture that individuals will acquire content in different kinds of settings. The majority of activity might simply take place online, as each device will have built-in mechanisms for ecommerce. One can only imagine what such e-tailors as iTunes and Netflix or their successors might look like in a decade or so. Will bookstores or other brick-and-mortar establishments involved in books and media be extinct? I'm betting that they'll still be around, though in quite a different form than today. Of course, rather than buying items of inventory off the shelves, consumers will experience multimedia presentations of all sorts of content that they can sample in person, naturally with the opportunity to pay to add it to their personal collections.

Implications for Libraries

The transition into a mostly digital future has massive implications for the role of libraries. To the extent that libraries base their missions on their communities for physical materials, they will need to reshape their services as their collections take increasingly digital forms. They already have to the extent that these transitions have already begun at different degrees in different aspects of library collections. I do think that, even as the transition to mostly digital content nears completion, libraries will continue to thrive and perform an essential role in society.

The presence of bookstores selling books hasn't obviated the need for libraries in these times of tangible media. Likewise, in future times where all content comes in the form of digitally licensed media, libraries will provide a vital alternative to the commercial consumer channels.

I find it hard to imagine that, in the future society upon which I've been speculating, there will not be at least the same levels of disparity we see today. To the extent that some parts of the population lack the means to gain access to all of the information that they need and desire through the commercial sector, libraries will play an important role to ensure equal access to information, entertainment, and cultural materials. Even for those with the means to pay for access to information, libraries will provide access to a broader range of materials than any person might choose or be able to acquire commercially. Today, individuals from all sectors of society borrow many books from libraries even if they can afford to purchase some.

Just as importantly, libraries provide a different set of services surrounding the content they offer than might be expected from the commercial sector. Reference services - offering nonbiased, nonjudgmental, expert assistance with information materials - may not be as forthcoming through the commercial distribution channels of converged digital content. Libraries will continue to provide public spaces for private study, collaborative learning, and community engagement. They will continue to provide essential support to teaching and research in educational institutions. While I worry if, given the budget cuts experienced in recent months, they will continue to receive the funding they need, I strongly believe that even into the distant future, libraries will be the same essential institutions that they are today.

Library Technologies for Future Libraries

If the future plays out anything like the scenarios I suggest, libraries will need much different technical infrastructure than what is in place today. This unfolding future where materials shift away from physical formats poses enormous challenges for library automation. The current model of the integrated library system emerged in an era when library collections consisted entirely of physical materials, and the model has not always effectively evolved to accommodate digital formats as they have emerged. By the time library collections are composed mostly of electronic materials, a dramatically different model of automation system will be required to manage and provide access to collections.

So much of the technology components created for libraries today revolve around the workflows involved in handling and purchasing physical materials. Automation support for the circulation might be those most impacted as digital displaces tangible materials. Over the next 2 or 3 decades, we'll need to shift from systems based on a physical inventory to those capable of regulating access to licensed digital materials in multiple formats. Some of the most interesting aspects of library automation today, such as increased adoption of RFID technologies for self-check and automated returns and automated materials handling, will be moot in this long-term perspective if library collections make a transition to mostly digital form.

I'm not at all suggesting that libraries should not make investments today in technologies that assist them in more efficient handling of their current physical collections. I think that the shifts toward digital collections to the extent that will impact the need for automation of physical collections will transpire in something like a 20- to 30-year span. In the meantime, libraries will need the best possible automation support to help them manage their current physical collections through very challenging times.

The legacy model of the integrated library system faces the need for major changes in the long term. They might take on more of the functionality currently seen in the electronic resource management systems, typically offered as separate products from the ILS. The kinds of business automation support that libraries need in an era of licensed digital content differs significantly from that involved in managing an inventory of physical materials. I would hope that future automation platforms develop well ahead of the anticipated changes in library collections and not lag behind as has been the case in recent cycles of library automation history.

I see some of the technologies in use today as quite helpful toward these longterm strategies. The various discovery service products, for example, provide a layer of search and services that spans both electronic and physical materials that will easily accommodate these anticipated shifts among formats. Having enduser interfaces separate from the backend business infrastructure provides great flexibility. As libraries require new components to support the management of their increasing digital collections, they should snap in fairly transparently behind these discovery-layer products.

In many ways a future of increasingly digital library collections presents exciting opportunities for society and for libraries. In the coming decades, however, libraries will have to work hard to ensure their place as vital institutions as information takes new forms and as new business models take effect. Even though these transitions will take many years to take full effect, it's not too soon to begin planning for the best technologies that libraries will need to thrive as the future unfolds around us.

View Citation
Publication Year:2010
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 31 Number 01
Issue:January / February 2011
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:15595
Last Update:2024-07-22 19:13:39
Date Created:2011-04-09 14:54:06