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

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What is the future of the physical library?

University of Toronto Libraries - Library statistics Chart created in Google Docs, data from: Note: In 2003 Ontario eliminated grade 13, thus almost doubled the number of first year students entering U of T, and is the main reason behind the spike in the graph.
During the past few months, I have been keeping tab on the progress or lack of progress in re-opening the Mesa FamilySearch Library. The Mesa FamilySearch Library closed down for renovations at the end of November, 2014 and as of the date of this post, has yet to reopen. Construction delays would seem to have little to do with the overall issue of the viability of libraries in general, but the fact that a valuable and frequently used library remains closed is one small indicator of the overall issues facing libraries today.

I would divide genealogists into two very broad categories, those who frequent libraries and those who do not. If you find yourself in the category of those who do not frequent libraries, most of what I have to say on the subject may not seem too relevant. Be that as it may, one of the measures of a free and open society is whether or not the population has access to information. Libraries are the centers of the information in our world society.

It turns out to be surprisingly difficult to find current statistics about library usage in the United States. Most of the available numbers are more than two or three years old. Figures from 2012 published in December of 2015, from the Institute of Museum and Library Services show a steady decline in visitations per capita since 2009. There has been an overall increase measured over the past ten years, so quoted figures may not necessarily reflect the more recent years' decline. I began thinking about this issue when I discovered the rather marked decline in usage at the Brigham Young University Harold B. Lee Library (HBLL). It is notable that this decline is not limited to this single library as is shown by the graph above from the University of Toronto Libraries. See Trends in library usage.

It would be all too easy to attribute the decline in patron usage to the availability of online data services. But I think that the shift is not so much merely a move from one method of supplying information to another, the real reason is that public funding of libraries has declined precipitously. This public funding has also been reflected in the private sector. For example, the Family History Library in Salt Lake City, Utah has dramatically cut its paid support staff over the past few years.

My focus is on the issue of genealogically important books and records. If you are listening online, you are bombarded with news releases about how millions of records are regularly being added to online collections. But if we focus on books, we immediately recognize that online access to current books is extremely limited due to copyright restrictions. Could you afford to buy all the reference books in a well-stocked genealogical library? I decided to see what would happen if I randomly selected a few books off the shelf in the reference section of the Brigham Young University Family History Library and checked them to see if there were equivalent ebooks available online. Here is my random list:

Glazier, Ira A., and Michael Tepper. The Famine Immigrants: Lists of Irish Immigrants Arriving at the Port of New York, 1846-1851. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1983.

Spalek, John M., and Sandra H. Hawrylchak. Guide to the Archival Materials of the German-Speaking Emigration to the United States After 1933. Charlottesville: Univ. Press of Virginia, 1978.

Anderson, Robert Charles, George Freeman Sanborn, and Melinde Lutz Sanborn. The Great Migration: Immigrants to New England, 1634-1635. Boston: New England Historic Genealogical Society, 1999.

Roser, Susan E., and George Ernest Bowman. Mayflower Births & Deaths: From the Files of George Ernest Bowman at the Massachusetts Society of Mayflower Descendants. Baltimore: Genealogical Pub. Co, 1992.

Cowan, Ian Borthwick. The Parishes of Medieval Scotland. Edinburgh: Scottish Record Society, 1967.

Some of these books showed ebook editions in, but none of these ebooks were available outside of a library or subscription service. Arguably, I might be able to obtain some or all of these books from Interlibrary Loan, but I could have done that ten or twenty years ago. Because these books are in the BYU Family History Library, I do not have to send away to obtain a copy. Of course, since I am at the BYU FHL frequently, I can just refer to the books in the library. But what if there were no libraries? I could buy a book, such as The Great Migration, with its seven volumes for about $35 to $75 per volume.

So, I can conclude that many of the books I would like to consult for genealogical research are not yet available in readily obtainable ebook format. So what is the future of the physical library? Given the fact that each of the books on my list above just happens to be still subject copyright restrictions, I am hoping that the libraries stay in business for at least my lifetime. I appreciate the opportunity and the advantage to me to live near a large university library. But the future of many libraries, as repositories of books, is uncertain. This future whatever it may be is further clouded by the US copyright law as it exists today. There seems little possibility that books such as the ones listed above will show up on any free ebook websites. So the whole technological process, rather than increasing access to books, especially to current, copyrighted books, is really limiting that access by driving those paper copies of the books off the shelves even when not substitute ebook versions are generally available. 

But if you are a genealogist and you think that everything is now available online, just take a few minutes to do a test like the one I reported above. See if the books that would be helpful to your own research are afailable anywhere in the world. 

1 comment:

  1. I also think we need libraries because we need librarians. Having the resource of a knowledgeable professional to help us access resources, whether they are online or physical books, is something we underestimate sometimes. That is why I hope family history centers will always be open. There is nothing like having an experienced consultant to ask questions of, but also to sit shoulder to shoulder with at a computer. This kind of help is just so much more valuable than an online chat, although those have their place as well.