Why Our Libraries Must Not be Allowed to Fail

When you walk in Chicago’s Main Public Library now called the Harold Washington Library Center you are reminded of the amazing roots of the Chicago Library system as you pass two hand carved mahogany desks from the Old Main Library now the Chicago Cultural Center.  As I walked into the Library today, I was reminded of the severe changes that are occurring in how information is delivered to us today.  Most of the 3rd floor research desks are empty.  Not just one, more like ten just on the 3rd floor.   As you progress up the floors towards, 4,5,6 and 7 you seek more empty research desks and empty book cases that once held fast-changing information such as City Telephone Directories and other topical information.

As you head up the escalator and seek the fine birch paneling, exquisite architecture and state of the art lighting, you realize that when the library was built in 1988 it was viewed as one of the most important buildings in Chicago and one that would get increasingly heavy use.  To give you an idea of how valuable public libraries were in just the last 100 years, you have to view the set up of the Old Library.  There was no “casual browsing” or picking out your own book.  In those days, you perused a card catalog at length’s end seeking to find the call number of the book or books you needed either for your research or simply to pick up the latest novel from your favorite author.  You then took your request to a table where clerks were dispatched into the closed stacks of the library to bring back your request.  Few people actually had the ability to scan the racks much less have unrestricted access as we have today in our modern library.

So what is the modern library, it is a wasteland soon to be abandoned with the emergence of the World Wide Web and Digitization of Images and Easy Scanning of Text?  That is a good question.  It is my belief that we are in a very tricky and difficult period of transition.  I believe that Google will soon become a utility that is regulated by the state.  I believe that most laws that govern the scanning of “scholarly” work will eventually get ironed out in the next 30 years.  Until then, I believe that we will have a situation similar to most law libraries in the early 1990’s.  In those days, the majority of your legal research was done in the stacks using digests, annotated State and Federal Codes and Regional Reporter systems.  These were organized using a system of directories.  Until the late 1990’s this was the only way to do legal research efficiently as you could not have ten books up on a computer screen to effectively write briefs and other documents.  in those days, Lexis, Westlaw a few others were making “text only” legal research databases available.  Although you could do boolean searches easily, the systems did not allow for good quality comprehensive reading research due to the slowness of the systems, poor reading quality, slow printing and lack of multiple viewing screens. In the end most attorney’s and students of the day simply did their research as best as they could in the manual volumes and then “sprinkled” updates with the most current slip opinions or shephardized results which were the only areas where these online services were truly unique and helpful.

Today, we have the same situation but in a much broader context of information overall.  Here are the similarities:  Most good comprehensive materials prior to 2005 are found only through manual research in libraries.  Google Scholar, Some Photo Search and other resources might have a smattering of information prior to 2005 but it isn’t comprehensive because most materials prior to this date were primarily via written materials – especially novels.  Lending practices at libraries do not always cover digital novels and other electronic media.  Therefore, there is even a media desert occurring where folks who do not have access to digital products can no longer get the hard copy versions at their libraries.    In short, today you still have to do most good scholarly research in a library on most topics and then update the topical or more current issues in the research with digital research on the computer.

So what should be done.  Library funding should be increased, not reduced.   Saturday and Sunday hours should continue to be available.  Communities should adopt the “forward thinking ” digital media policies that the Chicago Library has adopted allowed for the 3 week checkout of digital licenses.  Going forward we should prepare ourselves for an absolutely huge and unthinkable fight with powerful media empires such as Google and Publishers who will do everything in their power to eliminate public libraries and concept of public libraries in digital media.  We will have to fight for a State Solution that mandates regulation of Google which will eventually become a monopoly and fight for legislation that ensures the future of “borrowing” digital media.  Another nasty fight around the corner is the ability to keep a “personal copy” of media purchased or available freely or over the air.  You can keep a video tape copy of any copyrighted media.  You can keep a cassette tape copy of copyrighted media for your own personal use.  However, you cannot own a personal digital copy in portable format for your own use.  Just try to copy the TV show on your DVR.  Won’t work anymore.  Once again, the State needs to step in and take action.

I don’t think will see much activity in the next five years as things will appear somewhat competitive in the marketplace, but as things mature and more people become aware of the “Library Issue”, we will begin to see protects and public action to ensure that everyone has access to information, not just printed, but digitized as well and that the means to use and view it will be available at public libraries.

As a heavy reader of novels, most of which come from the Chicago Public Library, I am a strong supporter of the foregoing and welcome your comments.

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