Digital libraries

The European Commission have been holding their first summit on digital libraries. From

“Our goal is to make Europe’s cultural and scientific heritage available to all European citizens and researchers for their studies, work or leisure. With its immense expertise and knowledge, this group can make an essential contribution to the European digital library,” said Information Society and Media Commissioner Viviane Reding.

This is a subject close to my heart in many ways. As I am sure I have mentioned before, I am a book junkie. I love books; I couldn’t imagine life without them, fact or fiction, whatever – books are great things. I am also a library employee, and it is plain to see (from the inside at least) that as an industry we are somewhat flat on our arses thanks to a lack of funding from the government. Falling rates of use have been met with cuts in funding, creating a vicious spiral of decline. Libraries desperately need to modernise and move with the times…and I think most of them would love to do so, but there is rarely enough money to maintain the status quo, let alone move forwards and innovate the service they provide. Hopefully the idea of digital libraries will help things to change, although I think it will be of little help to libraries as they are today, ie the notion of a single physical location as a repository for knowledge in all formats.

The subject is a contentious one. The notion of digitising copyrighted material, in the way that Google has taken to doing, has got both publishers and authors in a real flap, fretting over lost sales and decrying what they see as theft. But it is rather like the noise horse-buggy makers must have made as Henry Ford started rolling out the first Model-Ts – the sound of people seeing their business model being killed off by the inevitable advance of technology. The interesting thing is that there is evidence that giving away free versions of book content online can actually sell more physical copies. Likewise in the world of music it can be observed that free content online can encourage greater interest in a band or artist, leading again to more sales. It is hard to know for certain which way things will turn, because the two sides of the discussion are (understandably) rather partisan about the information they disseminate to support their arguments. For the record, I tend to side with the digitisers, if only because I think resisting the inevitable is always an act of futility.

If you watch the news on these here interweb thingies, you can’t fail to notice that ‘the future’ is now, and ‘the now’ is accelerating. There are numerous arguments in favour of digital libraries: ubiquitous access from any location; enhanced ease of searching for desired material; less spending on physical infrastructure (and staffing, but I’ll gloss over that bit out of self-interest); multi-user access to what would otherwise be rare or even one-copy documents and texts. The list is virtually endless, if you sit and think about it for long enough. All the arguments against it focus on one thing: loss of profit.

The internet is not going to go away (unless there is a catastrophic reversal of the Earth’s magnetic field, of course). Instead of panicking over the expiry of their easy-money business models, publishers (and record companies and film studios etc) need to pull their fingers out and start looking for ways to move with the times, or go the way of the dinosaurs. Same goes for libraries; much as we love them, we need to acknowledge that they are no longer providing what is required of them, and look to the future before it runs them over completely. Meanwhile, the future looks good for artists, musicians and writers who have the vision to see that they no longer need the middle men to get their work to an audience – all of a sudden the world of creation has become a lot more democratic. I’ve got a proper article brewing on this subject; watch this space.

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