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

Sunday, January 2, 2011

More on the beginning of the end for libraries

Thirty-nine years ago as I started law school, I got a job working at the reference desk in the Arizona State University Law Library. I continued working there for the 2 1/2 years I was in law school. Normally, law school is three years, but I finished early. Previously, I had worked at the University of Utah library for three years as a bibliographer while I finished by undergraduate degree and my Master's Degree. After law school, I found that legal research was extremely time consuming and I spent day after day sitting in the law libraries doing research for my law cases. About ten or so years ago, all of that time spent in the library stopped. There was no transition, it just stopped. The reason was that our law firm got a full time connection to one of the huge legal databases. We can now do 100% of our legal research online. I haven't been inside of a law library for years, except to use their restrooms and tables while I have been in trial.

Another example. When our law firm moved to a new building, we took over the offices of a previous firm. That older law firm had a huge physical library with shelves and stacks of books and other materials. When we redid the office for our firm, we eliminated the library altogether. We now have two book cases of the remaining books that we use from time to time for our moderately large firm.

Back at the first of December I wrote a post about Google eBooks. I recently received the following comment from a reader named John Monson:
Our local library district says NO, it just expands the opportunities for libraries to serve their users, at least for those libraries that are not afraid of new technologies. Douglas County Colorado Library District obtains new books in all available formats as they become available: print, large print, audio, DVD, ebook, etc. After all, why should an individual buy an ebook that you are only going to read once. Instead just "check it out" from your local library. In our case, the district buys a certain number of copies of new e-books. The e-book automatically erases at the end of the check-out period, making that copy available for the next library patron in line. The non-renew limitation and the hold system works for ebooks almost the same as it does for print copies, where books in demand are non-renewable and can be reserved.

The Library District is conducting orientation sessions in all of our local branches to acquaint users with the various e-book readers on the market and their limitations (which are very real and frequently frustrating). I am sure our Library District will be helping users access specialty e-books,especially free ones, with such low demand that the district cannot justify buying or retaining. By the way our relatively small suburban Library District has the second or third largest total annual circulation in the state, beyond all but the very largest districts.
 Let me ask a few questions. Why would you want to go to the Salt Lake FamilySearch Family History Library? If you didn't live in the Salt Lake area, why would you drive or pay airfare plus a hotel? Why would I spend days sitting in the Family History Library, copying out (photographing) books and materials from microfilm? The answer is easy, because it would cost me far more in time and expenses to visit all of the other record repositories and I can find a considerable amount of the information I need in the Family History Library and some of the records may no longer be available anywhere else.

Now, let's suppose that FamilySearch is successful in its project to digitize all 2.4 million plus microfilm records in its collection. Let's further suppose that Brigham Young University continues its Historical Books Project and digitizes all of the books in the Family History Library and in all of the branch Family History Centers worldwide. Let's further suppose that FamilySearch makes all of these books available online for free. Would you still drive or fly to Utah to do research?

Mr. Monson's example of a small suburban library is a case in point. Who will physically drive to the library to check out books if they can get them for free online?

More questions, why do people come to the Mesa Regional Family History Center? To view our extensive collection of books? Not hardly. They come to use the computers that give free access to the FamilySearch online subscription databases like and They also come to talk to the research experts there in the Center. I would guess that well over 90% of the patrons at the Center don't even look at or realize we have a huge book collection.

In all of this restructuring of the way information is distributed, is there a place for the traditional library with shelves of books? I think my example of my law library experience is another case in point. I get all the information I need online. Of course, it costs me a lot of money to have that full time connection to a very expensive database, but the cost is far less than the cost my clients previously paid to have me get in my car and drive down to the library to do research. The online database works because it has every last scrap of paper I could have found in the library plus a whole lot more and I don't have to photocopy all the pages, I can just copy them directly on the computer into my legal briefs.

If the Family History Library films that I need were online. I would not go to Salt Lake just to go to the library. If the Family History Library were making money from people coming to the library, putting its entire collection online would make no sense. But FamilySearch is dedicated to making the information available no matter what the format.

Now, what about the suburban library putting some recently popular novels online for people to read with their library card? Putting resources online is a major expense but is subject to a direct economy of scale. A business like Google can afford to maintain a library of millions of free online books, because it gets advertising revenue from advertising. A county or city library has to get its money from the public coffers. How long do you think the cities and counties will want to compete with Google and other large online resources when their tax dollars are needed for other more urgent problems? What will happen to the libraries when the politicos figure out that no one is going to the buildings?

I guess that there will be some form of library in most towns and cities long after I am dead and gone. But I suspect that what we think of as a library will not be recognizable as compared to the traditional library, unless there is a huge restructuring of the services they offer. I also suspect I will be traveling to Utah to the Library for the rest of my life.


  1. People need a reason to get up in the morning and go somewhere they don't have to spend any money. People need to see people and even better, interact with them. Sometimes a dedicated reading place, like a library, a place where you can go and sit and read or do research serves a purpose for those of us who have many distractions at home, need to get away from home for a short while, etc. etc. It's not always about the book. Our library is repurposing their reason for existence, already, as many other libraries are. It has become an activity center, in part. May I send you a copy of a recent newsletter (digital of course)?

  2. I love to go to the library. I love to peruse the new arrivals and decide which of them I will check out. I search the stacks of a newly found author and read the description of other works.

    In the Genealogy Department I pour of the titles and contents of their microfilm. I look at the books and see if anything is relative to mine.

    I like to read my books with a cup of tea or a glass of wine later in the day. I like the book sitting on my end table and I do not see myself having some electronic reader.

    I just like to go at my own page and it is a day out for me by myself.