This is new version of some earlier thoughts submitted to the London Review of Books. Canning Circus is beginning to act as my own personal repository of work, as well as somewhere for other topics, which I find interesting as it was not as I originally intended in 2008 when I started. The web is an unpredictable partner.
It is often argued that the book has been the major source of recorded knowledge for millennia but there are now questions over its future as a physical object. For a number of years the search giant, Google has been digitising books. Of the ten million or so completed, around two million are in the public domain and six million are embargoed by copyright. This article suggests how the converged web and physical library act as an essential part of the future of the book.
In addressing the future of all books, I deliberately exclude historic and special collections in the world’s great research libraries when considering contemporary themes of mass digitisation. That is a closely aligned but very different discussion. Most positively, such rare collections will offer all research libraries a clear future as digital surrogates of exceptional materials only increase demand to view the original. Conversely, the library profession itself could be diverted into lengthy discussions on these materials and entirely miss an opportunity to influence a major development on the web. Google would be laughing all the way to whichever bank it chooses.
Life of books
The ‘book’ is at the centre of a number of relationships that bring it to life and sustain it. This is the case whether as a physical object or as an electronic text.
Books exist in four key environments:
1. Education – schools, colleges, universities
2. Public life – public libraries, hospitals, prisons, national institutions
3. Workplace – government, business, law
4. Market – bookshops, Internet, auction houses, homes
In the four environments above only the last one, the commercial market operates without libraries as a necessary part. Even there, libraries are present as purchasers but they are not essential. The relation between libraries and books is still the most important in the print and digital form’s life. In numbers 1 – 3 the acquisition rate for books is always highest in the library sector.
In academia, the library fulfills a clear role in research and in teaching. Large libraries are still the busiest buildings on most campuses. Students do not talk of ‘the death of the book,’ but more commonly that there aren’t enough of them to go around. In universities there is a triangle formed by researchers and students, publishers and librarians that is interdependent.
In the public life of most countries, the library is a major part of the accessibility and delivery of books and information between the population, authors and publishers. For governments, libraries play a key role in determining their ability to achieve equality and opportunity.
The complex world of work, from legal firms, to government departments, to the global span of the UN and UNESCO depend on access to recorded material. They are also in many cases, positively using the social power of libraries to deliver education and transform communities.
In a world on the brink of a potential knowledge monopoly by Google, libraries and their books in print and digital form remain a transformative force, although their role in delivering access to information is changing.
New research environments
Libraries are faced now with demands to prove purpose. This is acute in the public library sector, with the exception of the world’s largest public libraries. Even there, belts are being tightened. In academic research libraries the dual demands of teaching and research are effecting fundamental change on services. Students expect greater technology-led services and researchers demand content in print or digital media. At the same time, the commercial sector is intervening in both roles of the library more critically than ever before. This article will focus on the academic library sector and the processes associated with communicating research.
In addition to defining the role of library services at all, there are further complexities around the types of content being delivered. The higher education sector is still trying to agree a satisfactory model for the production and long-term accessibility of journal articles. This specific issue has been taken off-course by libraries’ spending years, and £\$\€millions on promoting open access repositories for research articles without the essential focus on the academics providing the original content. This technical infrastructure, whilst comparatively successful in delivering a standard architecture has not changed the research communications landscape as intended. Libraries are now forced back into negotiations with journal publishers over inflation increases, and into the same discussions that occurred ten years ago. We have been wasting our time.
While the library sector has been engaged in small-scale pilot projects and proof-of-concept computing, the web has altered without us. Google did not exist when funding for repositories first started. It has now overwhelmed them.
In academia, and despite the essential nature of databases and other information media the two dominant forms of communication remain journals and books. Both are now online and on the shelf, but either are still the principal ways for researchers to communicate with their students, the wider public and each other. If we have missed an opportunity to exploit technology to provide a different business model for e-journals, are libraries now in danger of repeating the mistake with books?
No library is an island
Not even the British Library holds ‘everything.’ The global system of inter-library loans has meant that for the majority of the twentieth-century, the world’s printed knowledge has been shared by its users through their libraries and now, with the transfer of so much of that knowledge on the Internet, we operate in an increasingly collaborative information environment. Even the loneliest of lone scholars performs his or her research in terms of arguments, and by default, you need contact with other people in order to have arguments. So, our researchers and students need the ideas of others in order to prepare and present their own. In these research practices we find our real vocation as providers of books: an intellectual engagement with readers.
By example, in my own services, the role that is played by the libraries of the University of London is important because of the national position held by, and the unique research depth of our collections. I feel the ammunition in the guns so frequently turned on humanities libraries in particular has been quite fundamental in nature. The questions have perhaps been derived from a more profound enquiry into the real purpose of research and the need for teaching in the arts and humanities.
Humanities libraries have been caught in the crossfire of this inquest. It doesn’t help that large, unique printed collections are considered expensive to maintain. I would suggest however, that this is more about cost than value or worth. They are valuable when compared with the cost of maintaining comparative research environments in science. The libraries are labs, but also essential archives of our shared past.
In this way, the libraries of major research universities are in precisely the same position as the research fields they support. My own view is that although science may keep us alive, it is the humanities that make it worth being alive in the first place. Libraries that support art history, music, literature, philosophy, sociology, psychology, languages, economics, law, film, politics, religion, geographies, history – our histories, indeed the ‘humanities,’ are supporting humanity itself. Our libraries are collecting and making available a shared record of human action. Our researchers are discovering and making new that record. The libraries and researchers that shape the major collections are in a symbiotic relationship.
So let us turn to the future. If no library is an island then what will be shared by researchers and students as the world’s recorded knowledge becomes increasingly available online?
There can be few other professions which have had the death knoll struck for them quite so many times as librarians. I have worked for my entire career to date with phrases such as ‘the end of the book,’ or ‘the death of libraries,’ ringing in my ears. For many, these phrases have not been the most inspiring, the most uplifting ways to begin our working day in the library. But we’re still here. Libraries and librarians have adapted, as we have so many times during the four thousand or so years of recorded human knowledge. The Internet is only the latest in a long line of additions to what we do. The earliest Assyrian, Babylonian and Persian librarians, managing collections of clay tablets, adapted I’m sure to the papyrus-driven technology of the Egyptians. As knowledge became more widely shared through its transfer in languages other than Latin, and the great European cathedral libraries with their precious books chained to the walls had to compete with an age of mass-printing, librarians also changed.
Libraries have never been the only source of information for people. Not even the world’s largest libraries are universal. Today, all libraries are adapting to the power of the web, embracing it rather than ignoring it. Generally, the new has a habit of enhancing, rather than destroying the old. In China, there is a company that is allowed to print over one million bibles every month. The extraordinary thing is not that they are printing bibles – although that is in itself perhaps surprising – but that they are still printing books. Amazon now sells more eBooks than printed books but more printed books than ever in our history are being published every year. The printed book will be a format of the future alongside digital editions, for most people, and in many academic disciplines. The future for the world’s libraries is secure as long as we see ourselves as part of change, rather than its victim.
What has so often been perceived as weakness, namely the attempt to store and use vast quantities of printed arts and humanities knowledge, is in fact a defining strength. Our libraries in London, and by default our researchers are at the centre of the greatest concentration of humanities knowledge anywhere in the world. The galleries, museums, societies, universities, libraries and bookshops in the centre of London are a remarkable, unique and shared resource.
Readers not stakeholders
It is recognised that libraries have been at the forefront of working to digitise very large numbers of books and to make them available on the web. In the US, the Hathi Trust, a consortium of 52 research libraries has digitised around eight million volumes. Approximately two million of these are in the public domain. The Trust offers something beyond Google: it is primarily a library rather than a commercial company. This difference means that reader access, not stakeholder profit is the purpose of the service. It also means that digital preservation is at the top of the agenda, not a rather fragile footnote.
Hathi is still a club and consequently there are member benefits. If a reader is not associated with any of the collaborating universities, he or she will only be able to access certain materials. It is likely that there is considerable duplication with Google’s service here as an out of copyright, or orphan (where the rights holder cannot be found) book will eventually be available on the web anyway. However, it seems to me that the potential of Hathi is considerable.
If we leap to an idealised future where all books in let’s say, the world’s greatest libraries are available free on the web, what would we have created? For the sake of argument, when I say ‘books’ in this context I mean published bound printed volumes. A ‘book’ comes in many forms in libraries. These libraries are the national libraries of the USA, Canada, UK, Germany, France, Russia and China. It would be wise to add Harvard. In the UK, Oxford, Cambridge and London holdings need to be checked against the British Library and similarly in the great university libraries of the other countries.
If all these libraries digitised their entire book collections, or even only those legally open, and made them freely available on the web the dominance of Google would be genuinely challenged or perhaps enhanced, depending on the view taken of handing over responsibility for global intellectual content to a private company. The obstacles are familiar: money and copyright. Google does not have a problem with the former and will likely buy its way out of the latter. For libraries though, both remain an issue, without creativity and ambition.
There is enough money in the public purse to achieve a global digital library. Hathi has already proved that working together delivers tangible results. As is always the case when cost seems prohibitive we have to ask ourselves what is the cost of not acting? This is certainly a driving principle behind the burgeoning idea in the US of a Digital Public Library of America, a potentially vast collection to rival Google but free for public use. For large research libraries, the risk of the Google Books strategy is plain – libraries will lose the ability to manage the delivery of books to readers.
Google intends such management to continue, but on its own terms. Libraries would not be an important voice in the web’s development, we could not guarantee in perpetuity of access and perhaps most crucially, we would be faced with negotiating access through subscriptions. In short, we would have created for books precisely the same situation we now struggle against concerning journals. All that would have changed from a library perspective is that we would be dealing with two industries (Google content and journal publishers), rather than one.
The issue of copyright remains difficult although Google’s ‘coach and horses’ approach to the courts may change everything. In a world altered by the information age it is worth reflecting on the validity of copyright law written for an earlier, perhaps simpler, certainly more controlled research environment. New licenses such as Creative Commons may be a glimpse into the future but if so, legal action needs to be quick and comprehensive relating to books. Neither characteristic is commonly associated with copyright law. Google Books may rewrite the rules more rapidly.
The Hathi Trust as it stands now accounts for around seventy-five percent of all the content in Google Books. We are at a decisive point in library history. It is time to create the global digital library before it is brought into being by an entity without guaranteed longevity or education as its core principles. Owing, more by luck than judgment, to the otherwise limited repository environment we also, for a short time still possess much of the infrastructure needed to build the next great library open to all.
The world’s research libraries have much to gain and a great deal to lose. Whichever happens, the impact will touch every person who ever bought, borrowed, read or wrote a book.