Libraries a Luxury – Kindles Or iPads Are Requisite?

Town libraries house tens of thousands of books, in relatively convenient locations not far from my home or yours. The New York Public Library system offers about 60 million items (books, videotapes, maps, etc.), over 20 million of these are books. That’s a lot of items which requires a substantial brick and mortar infrastructure and associated staff (counting inventory must be a killer!). According to Wikipedia, “Due to the current 2009 economic crisis, NYPL is facing a $23.2 million funding cut when the new fiscal year begins July 1. This will result in the expected elimination of 465 jobs, and in sharply scaled back branch operating hours.” That’s what happens when your budget exceeds $300 million dollars each year and the city and state government is running at a deficit.

But there is a solution. As all of this printed material and video morphs to digital, why would we need these items to reside in a physical library? Does the model make sense anymore? Will continued pressure on government to reduce expenses change the way we think about and use libraries? Are libraries, like the US Post Office, relics of a bygone era that need to be completely reassessed and modernized? Could we take a fraction of this expense and provide every student in America a Kindle or iPad?

I think libraries will need to transform themselves to remain useful and affordable. Perhaps they will have a few dozen (or even a few hundred) workstations with PCs for people who need to find an online resource, though wireless reading devices with Internet connectivity may become so cheap in the future that literally everyone in a highly developed country will have one. Librarians are likely to become virtual librarians, with a touch of a button they appear on your screen allowing for an instant video chat (that’s already available on line with many major libraries). integrated library system Surely they will not be needed to sort and stack books, to send out late notices, to collect late fees and organize used book sales. Perhaps libraries will house old books no longer in print, maps and plans that are difficult to digitize, and local historical artifacts for the town, city or region. Some day in the very near future, libraries may become a combination of a library and local museum. I’ll call them “Liseums.” Liseums would integrate local museums with library functions, combining town (or city) historical society museums with libraries, reducing brick and mortar overhead and the associated costs.

Libraries must change to become practical in the future. They will need to become nationally centralized and online database centric. While researching my recent book, I stopped by my local library to ask a librarian a question. I met Jen in the reference section, and she was very helpful. She subsequently e-mailed me some articles pertaining to regional and national commuting statistics. Of course, if my local (or regional) library was more of an online resource, I could have accomplished the same thing faster and more efficiently through a video chat, web meeting or instant messaging session. In the very near future, I would hope to see my Kindle support online web meetings, Skype type video calling, and library download functionality. I can already download many classic books for free, why not download any book from a library for free (yes I realize that will then create author royalty concerns – but that’s a subject for another day)? Regardless of your perspective on this, I suggest you look for a Liseum near you, sometime in the very near future.

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