Monday, 11 March 2013

Comment #21: -- What to do with libraries?

Date Started: 6/3/13
Date Finished: 10/3/13
Date First Published: 10/3/13

In the UK, and i expect, around the world, libraries – physical deposits of reading material – are being pushed towards redundancy.

Because of the internet, and on-line shopping sites like Amazon, it feels easier for people to buy a cheap second-hand copy than to trek down to the library and scour the Dewey Decimal system for an appropriate text.

Some people love the experience, but they are not large enough in number. Libraries are dying. Clearly, they must change in order to survive.

Historically, they were a philanthropic venture – supplying reading material to the working classes, free of charge, because they did not have the funds to stockpile books, like their richer counterparts.

Nowadays, much of reading is done on the internet – on blogs or web-sites, or in physical books or magazines that seem cheap in the context of modern wages – most of those go on fuel bills and personal taxes.

Many magazines, including the Dandy, have ‘shut up shop’ due to lack of readership (read: "buyership").

Lack of demand means a decline in the service.

Many private sector businesses reach their demise simply because they have developed their infrastructure to facilitate growth, and not shrinkage. When do we hear about economic contraction, and government surpluses, nowadays? We don’t. Why? Because it isn’t part of our collective mindset – our culture.

Businesses grow and grow and grow, and if conditions become disfavourable, instead of shrinking back to something sustainable by the market, they die. This leaves high-streets with big holes where, for example, Woolworths used to be. Economies of scale can’t save a failing business model.

But libraries have always run as an expense – they’re publicly funded, and deliberately run philanthropically.

Consequently, it’s difficult to measure how cost-effective they’re being. What do we count as ‘effective’?

The Ri (Royal Institution) is another feature of our cultural landscape that is being threatened by the horns of economic doom. Harry Kroto, amongst others, has been striving to change the Ri, so that it can recover itself financially, and become sustainable again.

If we consider libraries to exist for the same reason as we can consider the Ri to – education – then we have a metric by which to appreciate their degree of success.

The Ri’s main utility is the public understanding of Science, and yet the only thing most people know them for is their Christmas Lectures, which have jumped from TV channel to TV channel in recent years. Who’ll have them next? Whichever channel houses them, surely their future rests in further dedication to Science broadcasting; otherwise it might as well close.

It’s hard to argue that libraries pose no benefit to the public. Specific research has found that better-funded school libraries improves learning. Schools, of course, are populated by children, who cannot afford their own texts, which are usually expensive because they’re reference books.

Libraries are still used by people who just want to look something up. Or to find somewhere warm and quiet, that they can use to do work. The libraries on University campuses are invaluable for that reason, whether the books get read or not.

But libraries don’t exist purely for the communication of Science to the public – they house a lot of fictional works; and nowadays, a higher proportion of musical and video media – but they do provide reference texts; from how to raise a baby, to geology, and engineering; to local historical data and Council records. That kind of thing.

Keeping copies of books that are out of print – there’s a utility to that – you can’t get out-of-print books easily. Providing free music? That’s a dodgy one. Contemporarily, most bands pay their way with gigs – not with record sales – the record and production companies siphon most of that money off. ‘Mozart’s Greatest Hits’, however – supply that – Wolfgang’s not going to benefit from sales, now! [1]

It is my opinion that libraries must derive their funding through utility – not through undermining local bookshops by stocking new releases. They have enough trouble from the retail giants that undercut their prices and become ‘the’ brand, on the Web – the one everyone thinks of, or is diverted to via Google.

Libraries only have to convince the councils that they are useful, and indirectly we, so they should be providing services that, although not necessarily populist, are still useful.

Libraries should be seen as the NHS’ A&E of media – it will always be there to pick up the metaphorical tab. You might not notice it often – you might not appreciate it often – but it will be there when you need it.

Shops won’t stock when they don’t think the product’ll sell. Private healthcare companies won’t offer operations if they don’t think there’s much money to squeeze out of sick people by them.

It seems a good idea, to me, to overlap the function of libraries with data centres – libraries are, after all, hard-data centres, so why not digital data? Many of the world’s data centres are built, like far too many residential buildings are, on flood plains, or areas prone to coastal flooding. This is because they are built by profit-motivated businesses, seeking to keep their costs down. We can not afford for a huge city like London, or New York, to lose its portion of the Web, simply because its servers are built in the Thames Valley or Manhattan. Public sector organisations have the financial freedom to exhibit better foresight than that. [2]

In our libraries, we can already get audio and video data. We can already access the Web, like in internet cafes. Some of us go there just to play solitaire for an hour... you know who you are! So why not store digital copies of all the data that we just can’t afford to lose? I’m thinking of the research papers of local institutions, as an example – we can’t afford to lose decades of hard-won evidence. We live in a fragile system with too few back-ups for our digital data. Many of us don’t even touch the books when we go into libraries, any more.

Libraries can also be made responsible for publishing and archiving the announcements of businesses and organisations that are required to do so. In many areas, it is a requisite that newspapers be informed, but they’ll need back-up. ‘Papers don’t last forever, either.

I’m sorry if i don’t seem to be gushing with soggy nostalgia for the tactile experience of reading a paper-paged, wood-scented, glue-bound book.

I appreciate that broader sensory stimulation enhances experiences. There has been research into the tactility of food, and how visual stimulation influences perception of flavour – the book experience is, surely, also influenced by the colour of the paper, and the smell of the binding. [3]

But i don’t feel that libraries are a shrine to paper books. And nor do i feel that they should be.

The paper medium is a relic of the pre-Web age, when you couldn’t fact-check a claim, or update an edition in real-time, by clicking ‘this link here’. It is largely a cultural vestige of the pre-hyperlink era that so much crap rattles around the Web’s draughty atriums – people just aren’t used to seeing hyperlinks to sources, and so they don’t distrust claimants that do not provide them. [4]

I have written, before, about scientists’ struggles to overcome the dinosaurs of Science publishing – the publishers of Scientific Journals. [5]

They charge huge amounts for access to research papers, despite them often having been funded by the taxpayers that want to read them, and consequently earn huge profit margins. The charges were once justified, due to the high expense of producing paper copies of publications. Tim Berners-Lee invented the Web specifically for the purpose of communicating vast amounts of data with relative ease, and it is within that context that scientists prefer to publish on the Web, without a paywall, where their discoveries can easily be found, appreciated, and utilised.

It is a sad fact that the tactile experience of paper books, so-loved by some, is already a vestige of the past. With the sheer quantity of data that mankind now possesses, it would be infeasible to store it (let alone search through it) on paper.

If libraries are dedicated to keeping books for their own sake, then instead of a shrine to books, they will become their tomb.


[1] Ah – copyright – there’s a nice barrel of bloaters! I refer you to CCP Grey’s video, on the subject: ‘Copyright: Forever Less One Day’. It’s US-centric, but the same principle for around the world.

[2] Servers based in New York were hit by Hurricane Sandy, recently. References: here and here.

[3] Taste is dependent on context information: here. Sound and sight contribute to each other, in our perception of the world: here. Tactile sensitivity in the mouth plays into taste perception: here.

[4] The contemporary bane of the Web appears to be infographics. Loads of information, all in the use-unfriendly JPG/PNG/GIF/whatever format, where you can’t use Ctrl+F to search it; and you can’t highlight and copy the text to verify it. They’re deliberately made that way because it’s difficult to verify the content – a boon for pseudoscientists, blaggers, and marketing branches of companies who embed search phrases into the image. This is not what the Web was invented for! See a presentation by Kate Russell, on this very subject, here: ‘Kate Russell at The Pod Delusion's Third Birthday Do’.

[5] The mini-essay that i wrote about public access to, and involvement in, Science: ‘Open Access Science

Post Script: All through this mini-essay, i refer to that thing that we use, for looking up pictures of LOLcatz, as “the Web” rather than “the internet”. This is because the internet is not what Tim Berners-Lee invented, and not really what we think of when we use the term. The World Wide Web uses the global internet system to support ‘pages’. Without the Web, there can be no web-sites, but the internet could still exist.

No comments:

Post a Comment