Sunday, October 11, 2009

Where have all the libraries (and newspapers, telephone directories and etc.) gone?

The other day we had occasion to go to a large university apartment house. In the lobby there was a huge pile of telephone books all in plastic bags. Evidently, the local telephone company had delivered this huge pile, one for each apartment, for the use of the residents. There was just one catch, hardly an of the University students had bothered to pick up their directory. I commented on this to the person we were visiting and she said, "Oh, we don't need one, we just look everything up online anyway." What changes will take place if telephone books disappear? How will all these changes affect the way you and I do our genealogical research?

Print media, especially books, have a lot of negatives. They take up space. They go out of date. They physically deteriorate as they age. Multiple copies are expensive. Historically, we have had to build huge physical structures to house our books. We spend time driving to libraries and searching for books. Often the book we want is already checked out and so we spend more time waiting for a copy to be returned to the library. If we can't find the book we want, we have to order it from another library and that can take weeks, if ever. These problems are even more pronounced by ephemerals, like newspapers. Try finding a week-old newspaper physically, outside of a library or from the publisher. With all these issues, how can books and newspapers compete with digital copies?

I don't really need to get into the discussion about the merits of physical vs. online books. What I am talking about is pure information. As a researcher, I don't really care if I have a physical book in my hand, digitized images of the relevant pages are just fine, thank you. I will talk about the advantage of perusing open book shelves for relevant information in another post, but face it, a digitized copy of a birth certificate has essentially all of the information of the original and given today's advanced scanning technology, it is possible that the scanned image actually has more information than was evident in the original.

Think about this for a minute, (maybe more than a minute) if all the books in your local library were available for free online in digitized form, would you still go to the library? Now, let's be more specific, if all of the genealogical information in your local library were available for free on the Internet, would you still drive to the library to do your research? I must say that I go to the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah, not because I love to go to the library, but because I want the information that is stored there in the form of books and microfilms.

How many times in the last week did you look for news online? My married children and now my wife, all go online to get the food ads, much less to get the news. We haven't taken a daily newspaper for years. We get all of our news through radio, TV and online. If you want to get an investor's viewpoint on the decline in newspapers, you might read, "The Demise of the Newspaper Industry." See also Newspaper Death Watch. From the Newspaper Death Watch, the list of newspapers that have died or have recently adopted a hybrid online/print or online-only model is impressive:
The ability to get information instantly and relatively free online is definitely changing the entire print media market. Many people may view the online book readers, such as the Amazon Kindle,
as a passing fad, but the devices are getting so inexpensive and pervasive that the impact on the whole book selling industry will likely be revolutionary.

Now, what about genealogy. it is obvious that there is an international concerted effort to digitize nearly every kind of record. Recent news articles, highlighted the fact that all of the 2.5 million microfilms held by the Family History Library would likely be digitized by sometime next year.

But what about the records that no one, except genealogists, are interested in any more? What will happen to all the old courthouse records and other such documents if the county or city or whatever doesn't want to take the time or money to digitize their records? There are certainly more questions than answers but there are a few things that are almost certain, newspapers, telephone books and even regular hard cover books will continue to disappear the same way that video stores will shortly do so.

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