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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

The Demise of Libraries

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, December 14, 2008

In the early days of the 20th Century, some people were predicting the demise of libraries.

 

A new invention had been introduced into the publishing world that would eliminate the need for the librarian.

 

It was called an "index."

 

Nonfiction books published after 1900 usually have an index, and with an index there would be no need for a librarian.

 

A Table of Contents had made its appearance earlier in the 1800s, and small indexes were added to books as the century progressed.

 

The "new" 20th Century index was done by the editors and publishers of books as part of the production process and contained access to every name, place, and subject.

 

Obviously, that prediction didn't happen, as the assumption that librarians only find specific information for people isn't correct.

 

Several predictions were put forth in a 1974 edition of "Microform Review."

 

The use of microfilm in library collections can be traced to 1934.

 

"The need for storage of vast amounts of information" was the original purpose of microfilm, as well as the preservation of paper publications.

 

The prediction of a "microfilm reader in every home" was never realized, and in fact, seems silly in looking backward at the prediction.

 

When I entered the library profession in 1970, microfilm was commonly used for storage of newspaper and journal back files.

 

Librarians used it, people used it if they had a specific request, and it greatly reduced the physical space that would have been required to store the materials.

 

Nobody took home a reel of microfilm to read the best selling book.

 

Microfilm was supplemented with microfiche, a similar format except "fiche" is produced on a 3 x 5 card and is somewhat easier to use than "film."

 

Nobody took home a card of microfiche to read the best selling book.

 

As computer technology advanced, digitization of paper documents was introduced to make the information more available, and preserve crumbling paper documents and books for the future.

 

At the same time, e-books were introduced to replace the paper book in reading, and people really do download e-books and use them.

 

And so we are back to the original issue of libraries and their future.

 

Books published on a paper format continue to grow in numbers every year.

 

The same is true with everything in "e format," as we finally have a format that is easy for the human to see and use.

 

The key here is the ability of a human being to use our eyesight to see and use these various formats.

 

The cost of digitization, e-formats, and DVDs is not small.

 

Once you digitize something, there are ongoing electronic storage and access costs that never go away.

 

The same for e-formats, and a DVD works until you break it, and it is gone forever unless a master has been maintained in some file.

 

Yet, on a quiet inexpensive shelf sits a book, and in the file drawer sits a box of microfilm costing nothing but the replacement bulb in the microfilm reader.

 

Which brings us back to the need for the library, an organization that assembles and preserves information regardless of format.