On The New Republic, David Bell takes a five-page look at some of the implications e-books have for the future of libraries. In light of the New York Public Library’s ongoing plan to move many of its books away from its main branch into offsite storage with 24-hour advance request required, Bell wonders to what extent libraries really need to keep books around anymore, and what the changing role of the library might mean in years to come.

One thing Bell points out is that millions of public-domain book titles are available through the auspices of organizations like Project Gutenberg and Google—more individual titles than many libraries have already. And while many Americans do not currently have access to the digital resources necessary to make use of them, the number is growing all the time and digital access might be ubiquitous in 20 or 30 years. Apart from reclaiming storage space in libraries to use for other things, switching to digital for the public domain would make access faster and reduce the workload on librarians to check titles out.

Some critics warn that digital media are more fragile than paper, and fear that as digital formats evolve, older files will become unreadable. These fears, too, are misplaced. Yes, digital media are fragile, but they are also far easier to duplicate than paper. The history of the Computer Age has been the history of exponentially more efficient digital storage capacity. In the mid-1950s, an early IBM hard drive stored 3.75 megabytes of data—roughly the amount now required to digitize a short book—in a cabinet that measured five feet by five feet eight inches by two feet, and weighed hundreds of pounds. Today the most advanced, commercially-available “secure digital” cards can store 500,000 times as much data in a package that measures 32 by 24 by 2.1 millimeters. Which is to say, a digital copy of the entire book collection of the Library of Congress—some thirty-three million volumes—can easily fit into a small shoebox, making it simple to produce thousands of backup digital copies of every book ever printed. As for format, the very existence of vast quantities of useful information encoded in particular formats makes backward compatibility a necessity, and guards against the danger of obsolescence. Internet browsers today can still read nearly every Web page ever created. Current versions of Microsoft Word can read Word files from the 1980s. Nearly all PDFs ever created remain readable in Adobe Acrobat and scores of competing programs.

Of course, in-copyright books are more problematic—about the only ongoing effort to digitize them all in a comprehensive way has been the Google Books initiative, which has been mired in court for years and probably will be for years to come. Publishers have not been entirely forthcoming with their own library e-book lending programs either. But Bell looks ahead to a day when those problems might be solved, and public libraries might face increasing pressure to reduce their size or even sell their facilities—which tend to occupy very desirable locations due to their historical importance—altogether.

Reducing the sizes and services available at libraries also amounts to reducing the available expertise of library staffers who have been able to help patrons with specific, sometimes obscure, research requests. But on the other hand, the rise of the Internet has brought with it entirely new sources of expertise, including ways of reaching out and contacting experts that would have been undreamed of twenty years ago. Bell thinks that this points the way for libraries to shift their emphasis toward provide ways that people can interact with those specialists and others physically rather than simply virtually.

Whatever they do, Bell notes, libraries will be in trouble if they don’t figure out ways to adapt to the new digital age. I would add that this is really something that could be said about any institution that depends so heavily on physical books—for example, publishers. Regardless, Bell has a lot more fascinating thoughts and insights than I can fit into this article, so check out the original for a fuller sense of what he’s saying.


  1. Here we go again with the bookless library again. It’s really getting annoying. Why does it have to be all or nothing? Can’t both formats coexist? Not everyone likes to read from an e-reader or on a computer screen. Technology is ubiquitous, so when I have a chance to escape its grasp, I take it. I go to the library, grab some books and I’m set.

  2. Nann, there will not be books in libraries as we know it soon than people think.

    I work in a library and can give two reasons.

    1 – Our budgets are not enough to purchase both dead tree books and eBooks. We choose to increase the number of eBook titles available to customers (as well as other digital resources) and those dollars come from the physical book/item collection. This includes fewer CDs (Freegal replaces) and potentially DVDs soon.

    2 – Staffing budgets are down everywhere. In Broward County Library our virtual reference and digital resources are staffed by two people. Just to process new physical materials it takes four people. It is not hard to see where the trend is heading.

    Will there be physical books in libraries? Yes for the foreseeable future. But they will be more for older or poorer customers who do not have access any other way to old materials. New materials will not be available in the end.

    Right now we do more than 60% of all circulation is Audio Visual materials (DVD, CD, etc) and customers using the physical building more for the computer access or bringing their own laptops in to access WiFi etc.

    Less than 60% of all customers walking into the building actually check something out, and as above less than 40% of that is a physical book.

    I do think that in the US in particular we are moving back towards a system of private libraries like the Amazon Prime lending model. Government will not have the resources to provide everything that everyone needs/wants.

    True the cost of NOT providing these things is impacting the next generations but do elected officials look towards the next generation? or the next election?


  3. The most common physical items checked out from the library here, judging from the media reports I have seen, are DVD movies and language learning kits. Most people I know who do take out books either are already e-readers, or if they read in paper, they reserve on-line the books they want and just go get them. They don’t really browse the stacks. I do think there is a place for reference libraries with physical books in them, and for specialized collections (one local suburb here had some success merging the public libraries with the school libraries, which both saved costs and made the schools more of a community hub, thereby benefitting both of them). I do think we are moving toward a ‘library as community centre’ model, and I don’t think that is such a bad thing. Two branches here that just got renovated have large reading room spaces with couches, tables and just a pleasant atmosphere to go and read. I would rather see the physical space aspect devoted to people things, not object things. So, reading lounges, computer centres, meeting rooms for community groups and local programs and so on. And space for books, but maybe not as much space as for people.

  4. Ebooks are best thought of as e-libraries. This is because any connected reading device can display more than a single title. Physical books will disappear whenever there is no need to display a single title as a physical device.

    Why in the world would we want to display single titles as unique devices? It doesn’t make much sense to display a given conceptual work as physical thing. But on the other hand it is a popular transaction and Bohemian ornamental glass leaps to mind.

    The problem is our own physicality and a desire to make our imagination as real. Unique authors and unique cultures wish to make their conceptions real, authentic and persistent. Libraries and museums are assigned to maintain culture transmission by any means possible.

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