Monday, April 17, 2006

Whither Libraries? by Lancaster

F. Wilfrid Lancaster's "Whither Libraries? or, Wither Libraries" article tackles the issue of library technology at a point (1978) that he recognized as being a turning point in the debate between print based and non-print (electronic in this case) materials. Early in the article, he announces, "Whether we like it or not, society is evolving from one whose formal communication has, for centuries, been based almost exclusively on print on paper to one whose formal communication will be largely paperless (ie electronic)" (346). Focusing specifically on scholarly publishing in the sciences, Lancaster envisions a future that will have scientists submitting, reviewing and reading papers in an entirely electronic environment, and libraries offering access to the same material via electronic databases. Lancaster cites space concerns, production and handling costs and the time lag inherent in print publishing as motivations for a switch to electronic material, "by the year 2000, [or conceivably earlier]" (355). 2000 has come and gone: are Lancaster's predictions accurate? What, if anything, does Lancaster NOT take into account for the successful transfer to electronic publishing that could be an issue today? Lancaster closes his article by calling for more study on what libraries can do in the new electronic publishing world: what are some ways you have seen librarians adapt to the use of electronic sources?


Molly said...

The thing that struck me most about this article was the author's belief that automation would be the answer to the library's decreasing buying power. The author did not take into account the potential cost of purchasing access to online databases of scholarly material. Today the exorbitant costs of mega databases that own the rights to “essential” journals have put libraries in the same position that that they were when this article was written in 1978.

I also think it is very interesting that the author calls for an evaluation of the potential role of libraries in the electronic age. A glance at current LIS literature quickly reveals that this is something still very much under debate and widely discussed even though the electronic age is already here. “The Impact of the Internet on Public Library Use” article is a study that addresses Lancaster’s question. The article begins by asking: “In this age of the Internet, will we still need libraries? What roles will/should libraries play in the 21st century?” The “Impact” article was written in 2002, almost 25 years after Lancaster posed the same question. The article closes with the conclusion that libraries will need to change if they are to remain relevant. It seems that Lancaster was aware of the need for this change in 1978, why then are libraries still affirming this fact in 2002 instead of instigating this necessary change?

Quinn Fullenkamp said...

To piggy-back on Molly's comments, we as a profession do a whole lot of talking about the need to change in order to remain relvant, so why the heck is this not THE hot topic for ALA and all of the rest of the library groups and individuals? At times it would appear that we are akin to the Dodo bird, on the verge of disappearing from public awareness. Other times I read the articles in 'American Libraries', and see that there are some folks out there who are working like crazy to change how we do what we do, and change the profession as a whole. Will I regret this choice of profession in 20 years?

Eileen H. said...

I agree with Molly that the article paints this rosy picture of how the electronic age will solve all the problems associated with scholarly information, including lowering costs and making the information available much faster. In reality, electronic versions of scholarly journals often end up being just as expensive if not more expensive than their print versions for libraries. Also, the electronic age has helped increase access in some ways, while in other ways the time it takes to have things published has not really changed.

In terms of the second part of Molly's comment and Quinn's comment, I began to think that maybe we are still discussing what role libraries should play in the electronic age some 25 years later because it isn't something that has an easy answer. Also, it is something that doesn't necessarily have a one-size-fits-all solution. The role of the library, as it has in many different ages, is going to vary according to the community that it is serving. Should we expect that there is one big change that we all need to make that will ensure that libraries do not become obsolete?

Kelly said...

A while back an older lady I know asked me about the future of libraries and if I thought we'd ever do away with printed books altogether and read books on little computers ("like on Star Trek") instead.

The funny thing is, we've had the ability to read books on little computers for years, but hardly anyone does it. How many of you have ever even read an eBook? (I have...once. I didn't like it.)

We're a long way from going paperless, because it's just not what the people want. There's high demand within academia for electronic journals, but outside of that sphere I don't think many people care. And although eBooks can be useful for finding particular quotes (just do a text search!) and so on, not many people want to read one "cover to cover".

Deanna Olson said...

I agree with Kelly that there is a sense of nostalgia associated with physically picking up a book and reading it cover to cover. I believe that nothing will replace the idea of curling up in a chair with a good book. If the reading a book electronically can somehow replicate reading a book physically than there might be some merit to the extinction of the book, but for now it is pretty impossible. Viewing journals electronically, however, is very helpful. Personally electronic journals have saved me hours of sifting through journals in the stacks for the same information. I liked what Eileen said about how the library could never go extinct because the library is more than a place that holds books. The library is an important aspect of community that no amount of electronic books could replace. I do think that libraries are doing the best they can to adopt electronic versions of certain services but to transition all services to electronic would mean the loss of other services that are important to patrons.

Laura Elizabeth said...

I ditto Kelly's remarks on ebooks. Looking at an electronic screen for long periods of time is harder on the eyes. There will always be books. Think of college students. We just love to get a book so we can underline in it, highlight in it, and write notes in the margins. No electronic technology can replace that.

People love paper. Even when it comes to the efficiency of sifting through journal articles, when people find the ones they want, they still print them out.

Let's not forget to mention how well children and technology get along together. Not that all children are destructive, but don't you think libraries would rather continue to entrust children with paper books rather than giving them expensive electronic books they can break?

Soren said...

Though the web began as a way of disseminating scientific papers (Tim Berners-Lee at CERN), its great power has been the way it allows participation and content creation by virtually everyone who is interested and motivated to do so.

It disappoints and discourages me that librarians seem not to have been the leaders or creators of any of the major information revolutions of the 20th century. One would think that the internet, the web, or Google (and even Amazon, Ebay, etc.), might have been the natural brainchild of a librarian. They were not, however. Can anyone name a transformative 20th century information system or technology that was invented by a librarian?

Laura Elizabeth said...

I doubt anyone will read this, but here's another thought anyways. I was surprised that both our articles and our class discussion refrained in mentioning how improvements in technology have made it easier for individuals with disabilities to receive library services. Perhaps it was not created for the library specifically, but by not mentioning something as important as braille technology seems to make an unfair assumption about all library pations.