the evolution of the library

Shortly, the new, improved Whitehorse Public Library will open. We hope its designers haven’t screwed it up. Librarians are in the news a lot lately. They are undergoing a kind of existential angst.

Shortly, the new, improved Whitehorse Public Library will open.

We hope its designers haven’t screwed it up.

Librarians are in the news a lot lately. They are undergoing a kind of existential angst, like many of us data monkeys, questioning their purpose in the long shadow of Google and the digital information age.

School boards, like those in Ontario’s Windsor-Essex Catholic District, are cutting librarians and, indeed, libraries altogether. It considers them “nostalgic,” dispensable in the era of the internet.

They are wrong, but not alone.

Today, only 56 of Ontario’s schools have a librarian.

And who can blame them? Money is tight, information is cheap and available – something’s got to give. Public book warehouses probably seem an easy cut.

These days, the library – with its stacks of dusty books and manuscripts, battered carts, card catalogs and study carrels – is an anachronism, a holdover from a bygone age.

Their obsolescence began in 1995 – the year Netscape and dial-up modems connected frontier towns across the continent to the hive mind. It was guaranteed on September 4, 1998, when Google was founded.

Look around. You might notice things have changed in the past 13 years.

That’s lightning quick. But that, too, is part of this whole narrative, which is about revolution and incredible societal change.

Before 1400 AD, texts had to be meticulously copied by hand, usually by monastic orders. Libraries were necessary to share information because the books themselves were fabulously expensive.

In 1439, Johannes Gutenberg changed everything by inventing the printing press. That one discovery is credited with sparking the Renaissance, the Reformation and modern science.

And mass-produced books.

The book was suddenly far cheaper, and, as today, information was being disseminated far faster.

Libraries suddenly became important, not for storing rare and expensive books but for the warehousing of reams of information, indexing and sharing it with the public.

The storage issue should not be trivialized.

Books are big, bulky and damned heavy. Building a relevant collection, culling the dross, keeping the gems and directing people to them was the librarian’s role – after all, there was no way to warehouse it all.

Until now.

In 1990, a single gigabyte cost $10,000.

Today, a gigabyte of storage costs less than a dime.

That gigabyte represents about 10 metres of shelved library books.

So, is it worth spending $300 a cubic metre building a warehouse for several thousand books, that must be constantly tossed out, when you can store the collected works of humanity on a beefy computer server? Or when you can simply tap into a server with those works in Ottawa, California or Amsterdam with a $250 laptop? Or a tablet in a cafe?

Consider, as well, that human knowledge is currently doubling every five years. And that’s today. Given the exponential nature of our data expansion, that’s soon going to fall into the four year, 11 month range and, even more quickly, less.

And that means the books stored on our shelves are becoming obsolete far faster than they used to.

People love books. Especially old folks. But the hard reality is that, as a vehicle for information, the printed book is almost useless. Obsolete. Gonzo.

We have entered an age where it’s easy to update information quickly and efficiently. Electronic books do that.

Publish an edition in June 2011 and it can be updated with new information to reflect a new finding or development in December. And researchers can track the changes, easily.

That’s incredible.

And our kids get it. That’s why the thought of flipping through a card catalogue or an encyclopedia index never occurs to them. It is not efficient or particularly useful anymore.

In Ontario, schools are getting rid of libraries. But that’s as stupid as insisting on keeping the old ones.

Society still needs libraries. But they must change.

They have to be equipped with computers and public meeting rooms equipped with smart boards, capable of inputting new information and ideas to the web on the fly.

They should encourage research and discussion – becoming another place society comes to learn, to reflect and discuss things. A place less formal than school or university, but no less vibrant.

Today, the library is still important.

Everyone must have access to the internet and humanity’s fast-expanding storehouse of digital information – just as everyone needed access to books.

And, as many have noted, librarians have to find their mojo again as data miners, the guide you turn to when you need a particularly tricky bit of data.

Books will persist for awhile, but not as long as you might expect, especially reference books. They are quickly going out of date and will be replaced with digital documents, not printed materials.

Shortly, Whitehorse will open its new library.

With all this in mind, we hope its designers had an eye on the future, not the past.