Research online for writers is a given. Some of us go to college libraries or public libraries for in-depth information or to search for specialized or regional subjects. Many of us love the atmosphere of a library....all those books, all that information, people to help you find what you seek and lots of distractions or places to get other ideas for your next writing project. The thought of a virtual library is incomprehensible yet that may be the future. According to several reports in journals of higher education, the definition of a library is changing as physical space is repurposed and virtual space expands The explosive growth of mobile devices and apps will drive new services. What may the libraries look like?
Currently libraries cater to those who are within close physical proximity to the building. Some predict buildings will continue to exist but may come with heretofore-unknown users, machines, and technologies. Academia has seen the need to globalize. Several notable systems expanded to provide more resources for their students and professors. Oxford University is working with MIT and Carnegie Mellon to digitize their collections and share their inventories electronically. Stanford University and the University of Michigan are each following their own programs for digitizing their collections with an eye to sharing them globally.
Several scholars in Latin America are seeking to connect with the Vatican library that has priceless collections of rare manuscripts, books and pictures including works of Aristotle and Homer. In the past people had to go to Rome to receive permission to access those materials. With digitalization, travel will not be necessary. Case Western Reserve and IBM sponsored a program to create and capture, store and manage, search and access, distribute and use rights management for the Vatican library project. It took a team of six one year to reach their goal of 20,000 scanned images, surveying an average of eighty images a day. Digitizing materials is a monumental project but so is the problem of copyrights, which needs further study.
Public libraries are also joining the digital age. The San Francisco Public Library that serves all the San Francisco branches and northern California built a $137 million facility. It houses 300 computers for use by patrons, and offers multimedia conferencing rooms and stations, and a multilingual database. The Library of Virginia will be able by the end of Phase II, to house close to two million archived historical images in their collection.
Systems need to talk to each other and to users in both the repositories and the virtual libraries. Both must have the same skill sets of retrieval. Librarians of the future may need training in computer science as well as library science in order to assist patrons.
Economics is driving a large portion of the future of libraries in both academic and public situations. Just the cost of cataloging and caring of books is high. Virtual books do not require those services. Outsource businesses are popping up that offer independent cataloging and inventory control thus saving the public libraries and universities millions of dollars world-wide because they can share inventories and costs. Others disagree.
“Daniel Greenstein, vice provost for academic planning and programs at the University of California System, told a room full of university librarians . . . at Baruch College of City University of New York that the university library of the future will be sparsely staffed, highly decentralized, and have a physical plant consisting of little more than special collections and study areas.
‘I think that's not a very accurate depiction of what I see happening at research libraries,’ said Deborah Jakubs, vice provost for library affairs at Duke University. ‘I see the exact opposite happening, that libraries are taking on new roles — [such as] working with faculty in introducing technology into teaching... there's a lot more intersection with libraries and faculty than he [Greenspan] would lead you to believe.’” (article by Steve Kolowich for Insidehigherdeducation.com, 9/24/09
Many share Jakubs’ view. They feel services will grow not shrink. Print did not destroy the oral tradition nor did television destroy radio, newspapers or movies, but changed their formats. Yes, things change but usually only for the better. Think of the party line telephone services with an operator connecting the parties and listening in on conversations. Innovation did not destroy that new invention but invention enhanced the usability of it. Virtual libraries are on the horizon and should enhance patrons’ use of materials both through virtual and physical uses.
The good news for writers is that in the libraries of the future, we will always be needed to produce the written words that library patrons seek in any form.