Re-Inventing Public Libraries For The Digital Age

from the no-extra-money-required dept

It would be something of an understatement to say that the world of public libraries is undergoing rapid change at the moment. On the one hand, the rise of open access means that people are increasingly able to find information online that was formerly held in serried ranks of volumes stored on library stacks. On the other, publishers’ reluctance to allow ebooks to be lent out puts a key traditional function of libraries under threat. So what exactly should public libraries being doing in the digital age? Eric F. Van de Velde has written a a fascinating exploration of that question, along with a few suggestions.

Here’s the central problem:

The value propositions of paper-based and digital lending are fundamentally different. A paper-based library builds permanent infrastructure: collections, buildings, and catalogs are assets that continue to pay dividends far into the future. In contrast, resources spent on digital lending are pure overhead. This includes staff time spent on negotiating licenses, development and maintenance of authentication systems, OpenURL, proxy, and web servers, and the software development to give a unified interface to disparate systems of content distributors.

This means:

Libraries need a different vision for their digital future, one that focuses on building digital infrastructure. We must preserve traditional library values, not traditional library institutions, processes, and services.

So how might that work in practice?

By gradually converting acquisition budgets into grant budgets, libraries could become open-access patrons. They could organize grant competitions for the production of open-access works. By sponsoring works and creators that further the goals of its community, each library contributes to a permanent open-access digital library for everyone. Publishers would have a role in the development of grant proposals that cover all stages of the production and marketing of the work. In addition to producing the open-access works, publishers could develop commercial added-value services. Finally, innovative markets like the one developed by Gluejar allow libraries (and others) to acquire the digital rights of commercial works and set them free.

That’s an exciting vision, because it turns libraries into active participants in the creation and propagation of knowledge that is universally available through open access, instead of simply lending out the productions of others, without any real ability to apply the huge store of knowledge librarians have acquired about what their users want. It’s particularly encouraging that this is not just a plea for more funds — unlikely to be heeded in the current economic climate — but a simple if revolutionary call for a better use of those that are already available.

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Comments on “Re-Inventing Public Libraries For The Digital Age”

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Anonymous Coward says:

There is no need

There is no need to reinvent the wheel.

TPL (The Public Library) already got upgraded to TPB.

Serves exact same purpose, significantly higher efficiency.

Well, it doesn’t offer after school bratsitting.. but noone really wanted your brats screaming in their library every day after school anyways…

Steve R. (profile) says:

Lack of Technical Books

One of my frustrations with libraries has been the lack of (paper) technical books related to the use of computers, operating systems, and programming. I even donated some of my books to the local library only to see them placed in the “Friends of the Library” bargain table instead of being placed on the shelves. Considering Microsoft’s perpetual penchant to always say “Contact your System Administrator”; libraries could be an excellent resource for technical books.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Finally, innovative markets like the one developed by Gluejar allow libraries (and others) to acquire the digital rights of commercial works and set them free.”

And how is this better than letting those works simply enter the public domain after 28 years? I understand that Van de Velde is trying to find options within the constraints of current copyright law, but it still seems unnecessarily restrictive…

Chargone (profile) says:

Lack of Technical Books

likewise, though they’re rarely up to date and spread over all the various libraries in the city council run system (which shares a common catalog and will tell you which library they’re in, or get them in to That library for you if you’re willing to wait a day or two… and i can’t remember if there was a small fee on that or holding items for you or both (it was only a dollar or two reguardless.)

they do better than the school libraries, at least… (i’ve never understood why the school libraries (at least at the places i went to school) did not include copies of the text books, either. the text books were a common set, generally held onto by the teachers and handed out and returned in each class. otherwise they were a common set handed out at the start of the year and returned at the end.

good luck buying the things too. forget over-priced, i’ve yet to see (not that i’ve actively put effort into looking, mind, probably could find something Eventually if i did) a way for an individual to acquire copies of such books.

honestly, school libraries, in my experience, are mostly good for being out of the wind and rain, supervised (and thus lacking in most sorts of bullying) and being a convenient place to get fiction to read (you’re at school already, after all.)

I’m lead to believe that Tertiary education institutes (Universities, Polytechnics*, and so forth.) are a lot different, but i wouldn’t know.

but yeah, an entire section in the central library (can’t remember if that’s been sorted out since the last big earthquake or not, i should look into that) and at least a section of shelf in most of the branch libraries. (i know one or two are small enough that they may not).

Linguistics is another subject it’s hard to find much on. (you’re fine if you want to learn a language though. plenty of stuff for that.)

*i’m never sure on the word for this… the local one is called ‘Christchurch Polytechnic Institute of Technology’ apparently. Everyone just calls them ‘polytech’ in contrast to ‘uni’ or ‘the university’ in normal speech.

Andromeda (user link) says:


It’s better because it is, at the moment, possible.

Believe me, I’m sympathetic to the problems of copyright maximalism, and I’d love to see copyright laws more in line with the balanced approach reflected in the Constitution — limited terms that protect the interest of both past and future creators by incentivizing both creation and reuse. And it isn’t mutually exclusive — we can work to create new markets for creative works *and also* advocate for saner copyright law. But from where I sit, we’re going to be able to get those new markets up and running a whole lot sooner than we’re going to be able to get Congress on board with radical legal changes.

Much sooner, in fact: launches May 17.

–Andromeda, the librarian

ltlw0lf (profile) says:


I would like to see Libraries turned into Fab Labs.

This will scare the sociopaths more than anything else in the world. I welcome it. Those in the world who seek to lock down everything are just going to have to lock themselves in to the rollercoaster of life for once. However, I suspect we will soon see new bills introduced in congress to prohibit libraries from doing this, just as they have railed against libraries renting ebooks, music, and movies.

Anonymous Coward says:


My apologies if I came off a bit rough. I was trying to emphasize how far copyright has expanded in our lifetimes, not to demean Gluejar and its efforts. If, as a child, I’d been told the future of copyright, I’d not have believed it.

I realize that a number of people are trying to find practical solutions, and I certainly hope that helps to make many more works publicly accessible.

anon.librarian says:

A librarian's viewpoint

As I witnessed in my corporate library life there are two distinct camps of library patrons .. those who want books, (peer-reviewed, accredited and approved, usually hard-copy resources), and those who want everything available online. The librarian’s big quandary over the past twenty years, is how to merge the two. In our technical library, it was important to provide accurate, well-researched information. That takes time. Therefore, in most cases, the speed of technology meant that those books were obsolete before they were through the publishing process. This lead to many, non-specialist, libraries having to choose between tech books that needed replacing each year, vs. more liberal-arts-type materials that might have a longer shelf-life.

The The American Libraries Association (ALA) is very politically active in the free-speech arena, and librarians have been dealing with copyright laws for generations. This latest generation’s information shift is less about formats and more about how information is constructed. Some authors and research institutions still prefer the old-fashioned research model. Much like some people prefer the old record album format, finding value in the artistry of the whole. Others prefer their information, like their music, one tidbit at a time available for individual purchase. As you know, laws have not been able to keep up with this shift, yet libraries are required to cater to both types of customers.

Good library systems and good librarians are very clever with limited resources. Budgets are being cut all over while prices are going up. A public library system has patrons that need school books, want romance novels, need a book on how to repair a leaky roof, and/or they need computer time to type resumes, learn a language or communicate with family overseas. Public librarians are required to be pleasant, knowledgeable, efficient, child-friendly, computer experts on a public-servant’s salary. The good ones are all of that and more. Above all, they take great care to make their library a physical place for the disenfranchised to come and try to improve their lives through knowledge.

Anonymous Coward says:

A librarian's viewpoint

Another librarian here. This is all very much true in public libraries as well. Certainly, it would help libraries immensely to provide more and better and faster access to their materials, so long as the user population of that library can obtain that access. After all, in a location where home internet access is less common, a library with internet terminals becomes a point of access–but note that users are still coming to the building to make use of this service. Bear that in mind. And bear in mind that all libraries and their populations and those populations’ needs are different–especially in public libraries.

What this article has also omitted is the significance of “library as place,” a concept that has become more and more popular in library studies and literature. Some argue that it’s a last gasp from traditional libraries trying to maintain relevance in the face of change, but in certain settings (college campuses, public libraries), the idea of a library not just as a repository of books but a location for books, reading, meetings, socialization, collaboration, and access (online and otherwise) has been surprisingly successful. No surprise, really, if the library resembles an online situation in the meat world. More than that, there are yet library users who do prefer the building and the physical aspect of reading a book. So, as the poster above noted, there’s more than one (more than two or three or four) kind of library user. And libraries are doing as best they can to adapt and provide services for all these users. All at the same time. And this is a detail of library services not addressed by assertions that libraries just need to go digital.

On a different track entirely, this discussion hasn’t addressed the problems associated with archives and historic documents (and other materials). Even if these materials are digitized there will always need a location in which they can be stored, protected, and referenced (even if they aren’t out-and-out used). So as much as one might dream of an all-digital library or an “unwalled” library, there are other situations not addressed by these ideas. I absolutely support greater digitization and open access, but spare a thought for the physical infrastructure where it is most needed.

Anonymous Coward says:


Sounds a lot like MegaUpload. Who knew that those apparently feral capitalists running MegaUpload were secretly socialists?

*Checks dictionary definition of the word “socialism”.*

Hmm. Government ownership? Nope, not while MegaUpload was actually operating. Government ownership now? Yes. OMG, the US and new Zealand governments are secretly socialists! And since they are doing all this at the behest of Hollywood, then Hollywood must be a nest of socialists, or worse! Their true colours have been revealed! Where is Senator Joe McCarthy, now that we need him?

Steve R. (profile) says:

A librarian's viewpoint

“the significance of “library as place,””. The internet and websites such as Wikipedia make information available independent of where you are located. Consequently, the libraries need to formulate “attractants” to make local patrons want to be physically present. (Author book signings or computer workshops as examples)

Libraries no longer serve the local community, the patron base now is the entire world and libraries are in “competition” with each other to attract (global) patrons.

blackops2 (profile) says:

library evolution

I think libraries just need to evolve. i know of only a few libraries in my state where you can actually “check-out” ebooks. all libraries need to go to this system and provide training for the older masses who dont understand it.

also, the library is a place for more than just reading. it is a productive hangout and a place for people to do research, be alone, concentrate, cool off in the summer, etc. it is sort of like a free boys and girls club to an extent.

a bit of library reorganization and evolution is necessary and can help in bringing in a new age of libraries and their usefulness.

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