Preparing for the Long-Term Digital Future of Libraries

Article excerpt

IT'S NOT TOO SOON TO BEGIN PLANNING FOR THE BEST TECHNOLOGIES THAT LIBRARIES WILL NEED TO THRIVE AS THE FUTURE UNFOLDS AROUND US.

Let's turn the calendar forward a decade or so and consider that libraries might face relative changes that might take place in the reading and entertainment materials that make up their collections. We can project at least some aspects of this world based on trends well underway today. Although many things could happen to impact the kinds of change and the timetables, it's important to begin thinking now about long-term library futures.

The Shift to Digital Formats

The obvious changes to anticipate involve major shifts toward digital formats, distributed through license arrangements, rather than physical materials available for purchase. Different types of materials created by different publishing niches will each travel toward this destination on their own timeline, but it seems clear, at least by what's happening today, that scholarly journals, newspapers and other periodicals, books, music, and movies are all headed in this common direction.

Serials and periodicals. These kinds of materials were the earliest to get on the track toward all-digital distribution. Even today, most academic libraries have largely experienced the transition of their scholarly journals from print to electronic versions. Many of the university libraries that I'm familiar with have replaced the expansive ranges of bound serials and periodicals with subscription ejournal products. Extensive, often comprehensive, backfiles provide convenient access to this material, though libraries continue to struggle with the rising costs of ejournal content, despite its transformation to fully digital publishing and distribution methods once believed to have the opportunity to drastically reduce expense.

In the scholarly publishing arena, we can anticipate a greater variety of business arrangements, such as open access publishing, where authors pay publishing costs to support perpetual free access to the materials. We might anticipate a vigorous competition between commercial publishers and universities that selfpublish their scholarly output. The scholarly publishing sector has many different dynamics in motion, making it difficult to predict its shape in the relatively long-term future.

Music and other audio materials. The music industry has gone through a tumultuous history since it encountered the digital fray. Today, rampant peer-to-peer sharing outside the bounds of official commerce and copyright restrictions has largely been beaten down, now replaced by legal streaming services. In a decade or so, CDs and other physical media will have largely gone extinct, or at least relegated to the niche of aficionados or collectors. By that time, even lesser-known artists will depend on publishing through internet streaming services rather than CDs or other formats. It seems fairly safe to anticipate an all-digital future for commercial music publishing.

Movies, documentaries, and other video content. These holdings will follow much the same trajectory as music. Streaming video services, which are gaining steam today, will dominate entirely in the years and decades to come. Blu-ray, the latest of the physical media formats for video, may never achieve critical mass before streaming comes to dominate.

Manuscripts and photographs. Manuscripts, photographs, and other historical materials will likewise enjoy benefits through comprehensive digitization in the coming decades. While advanced researchers may continue to appreciate access to the original objects, the vast majority of scholars will find that digital technologies unlock these treasures more than was ever possible in times when constrained by physical access. During my recent visit to Leipzig, for example, I learned how the famous Codex Sinaiticus was published digitally in the last year through a collaboration of The British Library, Leipzig University Library, the National Library of Russia, and the Monastery of St. …