Monday, April 26, 2010

What IS a Library, Anyway?

Imagine walking into a building. At the door, you pick up an electronic reading device- you've presented some ID and have agreed to pay for anything you take and don't return. Inside the building are displays of books and comfortable reading areas. There's a cafe off in the corner. Your reading device gives you access to hundreds of thousands of books, all free for you to read. You can curl up and read the latest romance novel, or you can study for tomorrow's physics exam. If you find an ebook you really like, you click a few buttons, and you can take the book home with you.

Are you in a library, or are you in a bookstore?

If you're doing that today, the answer is that you're in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, and you've just paid for a Nook ebook reader. The latest version of the Nook software includes a "Read In Store" feature. And the Nook seem to be selling pretty well. Over at the Thingology Blog, Tim Spalding wonders when the "Read In Store" functionality is going to migrate to libraries (he calls it the "Brigadoon Library", because the books vanish when you leave the building). A while back, I wondered whether something like it would work in a Starbucks.

Which raises a deeper question: what is a library, anyway?

A week or so ago, I was asked what I thought digital libraries would look like in five years. I answered with a question- "what will libraries look like in five years?" and started blabbering about "what is a digital library anyway?" What else could I do?

Here's what I wrote six years ago:
A digital library is "Any collection of digital resources managed with the primary goal of maximizing the collection's utility to a defined user community".
Even if you remove the word "digital" from that, I think that still works.

Barnes and Noble is not a library, because the collection of material it makes available is designed to maximize sales, not to benefit a community. When Barnes and Noble goes bankrupt, and sells the building and the Nooks and the contractual arrangements to the local library foundation, it would become, almost by magic, a library. Or it least it would after they get rid of the one hour per day limit for Read In Store, that's how I see it. It could still sell the $125 Kate Spade Nook covers, though.

That's not to say that having a Barnes and Noble Nook Cafe doesn't benefit a community, and it doesn't say that a non-profit won't try to maximize revenue in the interests of self preservation. But it does say that the essence of libraryness is rooted in the community that the library-like resource serves, and not in its collection of stuff.

I've talked to a lot of people in publishing and in libraries about the Brigadoonbucks library concept, and I haven't found much interest. The technology would be pretty easy, but the reconceptualization of libraries and bookselling is going to take a while. In New Jersey, at least, it seems more likely that our new Governor will sell off the libraries to Barnes and Noble.

I think I'll go get some carrot cake.
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  1. Baltimore libraries have a program that allows patrons to order groceries via library-based internet. Health department staff help patrons order healthy food. Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake touts the program as a use of technology to improve citizen health and compensate for economic problems in neighborhoods called "food deserts."
    Here's a link to an npr story: Get Your Groceries At The Library

  2. Very nice piece, Eric. Your definition of a library is not too far away from Mike Eisenberg's (quoting from memory, so the errors are all mine):
    "A library is a prediction of future need"

    Always hard, those predictions.

    Stu Weibel

  3. Suppose one theme of what a library is, is that a library provides access to information. Different segments need different forms of access. Baltimore libraries provide access to the technologically unsophisticated.
    Stephen Wolfram aspires to compute a theory of everything. See his TED lecturette:

  4. If we use the "provides access to information" definition, then Google, Amazon, Wikipedia and the New York Times would qualify, but those don't seem like libraries to most people. The prediction of future need quote is rather depressing if you think about it, unless you're an archivist. Satisfying present needs is what I would go for.

    Linkified links:
    Wolfram's TED talk

    Get your groceries