Libraries are gonna have to change

October 24, 2010

Libraries have traditionally been repositories of knowledge - a place that you go to if you want to do some research, find something interesting to read, or just borrow a trashy novel to stave off boredom. I'm thinking of your local lending library here - the kind that lets you borrow a book, read it, and bring it back in a few weeks. They're often funded by local government (at least where I live), and hence are not a profit seeking enterprise, and they usually provide services that are of huge benefit to their local community. I think libraries are fantastic.

I also think that their traditional lending-based service model is doomed.

My apologies. That was overly dramatic. It's probably more appropriate to say that the lending model currently used by libraries is going to take a back seat to some of the less matter-bound services that libraries offer. More about that in a moment. First, let me explain why lending will decline.

The lending model is fundamentally tied to the ideas of scarcity and the high marginal cost of production - that is, it costs a lot to make another of something. This idea is certainly true of books; dead tree books cost a packet, particularly reference books. So if you want access to a lot of them, you'd better be prepared to pay - or use a lending library. But as more and more content - and more and more books - become accessible by digital means, that idea goes out the window. The cost of making a digital copy of a work that exists in digital form (like, say, an ebook) is practically zero. That means that it actually costs more to run a digital lending system, where you have to keep track of the copies you've made, and ensure that they are deleted when they should be, than it does to just give people digital copies of the works they want access to.

Let me say that again: it costs more to lend digital works than it does to give them away. That turns the traditional lending library model on its head, because the fundamental assumption that lending libraries operate on is that the world works the other way around. Which it has for centuries, and will continue to in some cases. The basic distinction is that it's true for atoms, but not for bits.

So if demand for libraries' primary purpose - lending - is going to decrease in the near future, what will they offer to the community when that happens? Well, I'm glad you asked. It just so happens that librarians (and the other people you find hanging around in libraries) know a whole lot more than simply where the books are. They also tend to have a lot of skills that the rest of us just need every so often. Skills like research, like referencing, like actually finding facts, figures, quotations and evidence that can't necessarily be indexed by Google (yet). They have a really big role in encouraging literacy and education, and in local history research and archiving. Think local papers, minutes of local council meetings and putting names to faces in old photos.

As far as content goes, I believe that libraries will still have something to offer, even if they don't lend so much. One of the biggest issues with the free reproduction of works that is made possible by digital tools comes in the form of copyright. While copyright protection organisations like AFACT, BREIN the MPAA and the RIAA are often portrayed as villains (and sometimes rightly so) by publications like TorrentFreak, they do seem to have the law on their side at least some of the time. The law may be outdated and unfair, but crossing it can still get you into serious trouble, and serious debt if you're singled out for prosecution. I think libraries may be able to offer something in that kind of world. They can offer certainty of provenance - a way to be sure that you're respecting the rights of those who made what you're enjoying. I envision repositories of links to works that are freely distributable, either as public domain, or licensed under Creative Commons or open source licences, or some similar arrangement, which we can use, enjoy, and be sure that we're allowed to do so. Difficult, perhaps. Certainly impossible to do in a way that is exhaustive, and keeps track of every free work out there. But something is better than nothing, and I can't think of anyone better than a librarian to help me find that kind of thing.

There is another characteristic of libraries that makes them valuable, quite apart from the services provided by the staff. I'm talking about the space that libraries provide, purely by virtue of being in a building, for people to work on stuff while they are around other people. Coworking is a pattern that is taking off in the small business/entrepreneurial area. The idea is that a bunch of people share a work space, each working on their own project or idea, and the get the benefits of working with others: some social interaction, people to bounce ideas off and discuss problems with, as well as answers to the "how do I get my damn computer to work?" questions. I see that as a really easy transition for libraries to make. It was once the domain of universities, and to some extent it still is, as long as you have a degree in something or other. Coworking is making headway on this idea in the professional world. Libraries have the opportunity to open up that kind of experience to a much broader group of people, many of whom could benefit from it, such as amateur researchers and secondary and tertiary students.

So while I think lending as a service is set for a decline, I think there's still a lot of value to be found in libraries, particularly in the expertise of those who inhabit them, and the atmosphere they get when people seeking knowledge find themselves in the same place. I look forward to seeing what really happens.

Libraries are gonna have to change - October 24, 2010 - Lucas Wilson-Richter