RootsTech 2015

Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Monday, February 24, 2014

Online Libraries -- Checking out books online to read


Are online libraries coming to genealogy? I think the transition from closed "copyrighted" impaired libraries to open online check-out libraries to be almost inevitable.

Let's look at the traditional library model I have used since I could read. You have a building somewhere in your community designated as a "library." This building has a collection of books and other materials managed by one or more librarians and support staff. When you want to borrow a book, you go to the library, look in the library catalog and physically select the book from the shelf. You then go through some process to "check out" the book and have the physical possession of the book for a limited period of time. At the end of that time, you must physically return the book to the library or be fined. Does all that sound familiar.

As researchers, we have another type of traditional library. This is the reference library. In this type of library we can only view the library's holding while we are in the library (or archive or whatever) The books and other materials in the library do not circulate. If we want to view what is in their collection, we must physically travel to the physical library and look at the research materials.

I would submit that both of these traditional models are archaic dinosaurs and close, very close to extinction. Now before I get all sorts of comments about how physical books are superior to online books and how you love the smell and feel of books and all sorts of other similar arguments, let me explain.

When was the last time you went to your local public library? Presently, I happen to have two good ones relatively close to where I live. In one case, I have had several rather interesting discussions with the head librarian about the future of the facility. In both libraries, the number of computer stations available to patrons has been constantly increasing over the years. In both libraries, checking out books is done entirely by the patrons using electronic book scanners. What is more important, both libraries have really extensive online digital libraries. Again, in both libraries, the number of classes and seminars and educational opportunities have increased dramatically.  For example, the Southeast Branch of the Maricopa County Library is holding their Second Annual Genealogy Fair on 1 March 2014. This is just one of a series of events making the library into an education and social center rather than simply a place to go to check out books.

Here is an interesting fact. The Greater Phoenix Digital Library has close to 100,000 electronic books online. I have access to these books through my library card at either of the other two libraries. Now let's jump from local to national and international. The OpenLibrary.org has over a million free online ebooks that can be checked out electronically. There are hundreds of other free online sources for electronic books including Google.com, the HathiTrust.org, FamilySearch.org and other such websites.

So now how do I check books out of the library? I go online to the Greater Phoenix Digital Library. Sign in with my library card number. Choose a book. Click download and the book downloads to my iPad. At the end of the check out period, the book returns itself to the library. Slick as a whistle.

As a result of this availability of online ebooks, the number of my visits to the public libraries decreased dramatically, for a while, now I am going back more frequently. Why? Partly for the special events and partly because I have been teaching at the Maricopa County Library.

One major factor in this change is the availability of reading devices such as iPads, Android tablets and the Kindles. What will inevitably happen? As genealogically pertinent materials become more and more available online, the need to travel to remote locations will steadily decrease. It will never disappear in the lifetime of any of us, but it will change the way we view, check out and research most of the material we now are forced to use on paper and in reference libraries. My guess is that the last to convert to digital will be the large national archives and the University Special Collections.

If you don't know how to check out books electronically, make a visit to your local public library. They will likely have a class or two on using tablets to read books electronically.

An end note. I checked out the availability of ebooks in Utah and they are still in very primitive exploratory stage. I guess we will have to keep our Arizona library cards and pay for them as out-of-state residents.

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