What do you think of when I write the word "library?" Most of my early library experience was in the then modestly sized, Phoenix Public Library. I spent many days during the hot summers, riding back and forth from the library on my bike and reading the seven books at a time checkout limit. As I grew older I spent considerable time in bookstores. Over the years my parents acquired hundreds, then thousands of books on a wide variety of subjects. After leaving home and getting married, as we started our family, we also acquired a sizable book collection into the thousands of books. While my children were growing up, we visited the library regularly. Early on, it was the Scottsdale, Arizona Public Library and then the Mesa, Arizona Public Library.
As I progressed in school I remember the smaller libraries in my schools. I spent even more time reading. By the time I was attending the University of Utah, my library life began to change. I spent more time researching than reading for enjoyment. I would choose a topic and read everything I could find on that topic. This continued for years. During my time as an Intelligence Analyst for the United States Army, I spent two years of intense research and reading. This reading continued in law school and afterwards.
During my time at the University of Utah, I worked in the J. Willard Marriott Library as a bibliographer. After my active duty in the Army, I also worked as a Reference Librarian at the Arizona State University Law Library for nearly three years.
Year after year, I frequented libraries in the Salt River Valley. Most recently we frequently visited both the Mesa Public Library and the Maricopa County Library branch in Gilbert, Arizona.
Genealogy became a predominant topic during the last thirty plus years and I spent considerable time in the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah. For the past almost twelve years, I worked at the Mesa FamilySearch Library (previously Mesa Regional Family History Center). I now spend many, many hours, sometimes more than eight hours a day, in the huge Brigham Young University, Harold B. Lee Library.
I think I have a perspective about libraries and books that comes from extensive experience.
During the past forty years, my library experience has been changing. I began my work with computers over forty years ago at the University of Utah. Now, most of my research and all of my writing is done on a computer. I now read books on an iPad or an iPhone. The Internet has almost completely replaced my research in libraries. Lately I have found something interesting. I am finding that the Internet is not all knowing. My visits to the books in the libraries have become more frequent than they were in the immediate past. Access to the BYU Library and the Provo, Utah Public Library, have taken me back to the stacks.
At the core of this interest in libraries and books is the desire to learn. This is not a superficial interest. It is a life-long pursuit. With that lengthy introduction, I have some observations.
There is a background of discussion among those who frequent libraries and particularly among those employed by libraries, concerning the future of the whole concept of a library. The question involves their survival in their present form and their ultimate survival at all. Can libraries survive the onslaught of digitization and mobile reading devices? Will Google ultimately end up destroying libraries altogether?
Genealogists find themselves in an interesting position. Most of us are older. Some of us find ourselves in libraries for the first time as we gain an interest in researching our families. Some, like me, come from a strong research background. But we also find that much of the information we need has now moved onto the Internet in digital format. Many genealogists, particularly those just starting out, find that they do not need to visit a library at all. They are already overwhelmed with the amount of information available online. In fact, many younger genealogists have probably never visited a library for the purpose of doing genealogical research.
Many of the discussions about the survival of libraries focus on funding issues. It is a situation where those who make the funding decisions may seldom have visited a library and do not see a need for one. After all, isn't everything we need to know online now anyway?
I find that my present experience is mixed. With some I am helping, everything they need is online. Others, find themselves in libraries rather quickly. One reason I moved from the Mesa Public Library and began using the Maricopa County Library was rather simple. Mesa curtailed funding their library and the selection of "new" books was limited. The Maricopa County Library seemed to acquire newer books regularly.
In this example, what happens to libraries and decisions made by those who operate them, becomes self-fulfilling. There is a decrease in the perceived need for libraries and then funding is cut and the library becomes even less current and so forth in a cycle of destruction. In the case of a university library, there is a different perspective. Libraries are seen as a "status" symbol. In a large research university like BYU, the library is a vibrant, growing entity. Thousands of students a day, come to learn, study and even take classes in the library. Strangely, very, very few genealogists see the advantages of a university library. Most are completely unaware of the resources of these libraries.
The movement of information to the Internet is inexorable. My own experience is a microcosm of the entire issue. Just as my use of the Internet has increased dramatically, so, for a time, did my use of libraries. But now, I am seeing the value of the resources in both a university and a public library. Today, I will visit both and I will probably use books from both. Interestingly, neither of the two books I will be reading are freely available online.
Here is the key. Libraries give patrons free access to their books, even those under copyright. It is this factor that keeps them in business. If I go online and look for a current book, I will find it for sale. If I want to pay a fee, I might be able to download a digital copy. If I do not want to "own" the book, I can usually find it in one of the libraries. In Utah Valley, I can also go to the Orem Public Library, if I find a book there and no place else.
This is the key. I do not need, nor do I want to own all the books. My shelves are full. Until the libraries find a way to make their collections available to those who read on electronic devices, they will continue to lose patrons and funding. Here is the dilemma. If libraries make their collections available online, including copyrighted material, who will come to the library physically? I think my own experience is the answer. I do research. The fact that the latest books are available online makes no difference to me at all. If every book every written were available online, that might make a difference. But we aren't nearly there yet. As long as I have to pay to look at a new, copyrighted book and do not have access to old books outside of the library, I will continue to go to the libraries.
There is a lot more to this issue besides what I have already written. Stay tuned or not, depending on whether you care about libraries or not. Whatever.