On Libraries

Kristin Berkey-Abbott’s most recent post made me think of public libraries and their fate. It’s something that I’ve thought about before in passing but never gave any serious consideration.

I’ve accepted the very real possibility that one day, the library (as a physical building filled with books to be borrowed at will) can and will cease to exist. I consider this a very probable event that will happen at some point in the future, even if it isn’t in my lifetime or that of the generation after me, though I hesitate to consider anything in the future to be certain. If we could accurately predict such things, we would very likely be flying to Mars on summer vacations with our jetpacks as early as next year.

The real question is this: What will come after the public library? Thanks to the internet and piracy within, it’s reasonable to expect that any and every bit of media will be available for free in some deep, dark corner of the cloud. Publishing companies can go the route of the music and movie industries, and sue everyone and their mother over every title still nailed down by copyright laws, or maybe we will see the rise of the electronic library.

We already have the e-readers and online stores for them, giving access to lots of recent and older titles. We already have ways to rent movies and games online (the Playstation Network and iTunes stores come to mind) Why not for books?

Of course, there would still have to be money in some form changing hands. To have patrons pay for each book borrowed would defeat the purpose, but I wouldn’t object too much to paying a one-time fee to download the service’s software. Perhaps a subscription service if it’s reasonably low. Maybe every book file would come with some ads if the service wishes to remain free for all. Maybe services will be limited to endless donation drives.

Would there still be a limit to how many books can be “borrowed” at once? Again, if it’s within reason I wouldn’t mind as much. The problem with subscription fees and borrowing limits lies when the software developers try to find a definition for “reasonable.” However, I’m not about to set rules for services that don’t exist yet.

The fact that all of this would exist on the internet likely eliminates the “local” factor. Even if city governments are among the first to jump on a service like this (though I have yet to see a government succeed in being innovative in any field, it would certainly save a lot of money on land development), I can see someone setting up their own service not based in any physical location and others following suit if the local e-libraries have just the slightest of problems.

Will there be competition between services? Almost certainly, even if there is nothing stopping one from joining more than one library community.

Will there be opportunities for social networking? “Your book has also been borrowed by John Smith and Bob Hammoth. Find others in your area.” I can see at least one cloud-based service (not set up by local governments) having a feature like this.

Will Google try to dominate this market? Or will we have another King of the Internet by this time?

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