The Future of Libraries, Part 3: The Virtual Library

February 6, 2024

Originally published March 1992. Published on August 6, 2001.

I posed the following dilemma at the end of my previous column (see The Futurecast, LJ, February 15, p. 140): If borrowing a virtual book from the virtual “free library” involves simply selecting a few icons on the screen of your circa 2000 notebook computer, why then would anyone buy a book (which would involve clicking on a different set of icons as well as a debit to one of your financial accounts)?

I posed this specter to two of our contemporary visionaries: Apple Fellow Alan Kay and Hudson Institute Fellow George Gilder. Gilder replied that no one should feel too secure in the information revolution. Having the courage to radically alter one’s self-concept will be the primary prerequisite to survival for any organization, from IBM to the Mill Valley Local Library.

Kay replied that the “free library is not free.”

These two enigmatic replies contain the key to resolving the dilemma if we ponder the implications of both views. We can postulate two visions of the library of the future. If we are indeed entering the Age of Knowledge (see The Futurecast, LJ, September 15, 1991, p. 58-59) in which the meaningful organization of information will be the paramount strategic asset of nations and individuals, then the library, as the institution in our society primarily responsible for organizing and presenting codified knowledge, may properly be regarded as having the responsibility for leading the charge. On the other hand, if we view the concept of the library more provincially, as a building containing stacks of paper books with librarians who lend these objects out to patrons, then our long-term prognosis for the institution is distinctly more dismal.

If you were a blacksmith at the turn of the century, your outlook would depend on whether you saw yourself as a shaper of horseshoes or a facilitator of transportation (in which case you would trade in your forge and hammer for a gas pump). Gilder is pointing out that with the pace of change accelerating, it is not only the private sector that must dramatically adapt. Our public institutions – schools, government, libraries – must define their missions badly enough to survive the obsolescence of more narrowly defined self-concepts.

If we define the mission of the library as the shaping and distribution of knowledge through whatever technical means, we are still left with the original predicament. Perhaps it is bookstores that will have to go. If libraries can simply distribute books and other information electromagnetically through the air and optically through the nation’s fiberoptic information highway, then who needs bookstores, anyway? The problem, however, is that without revenue there will be no publishers and nothing will be published.

A fistful of knowledge

We must now contemplate a central lesson of the Age of Knowledge, which is implied in Kay’s observation above. Knowledge is not Free, nor should it be. We are used to paying for the knowledge content of products so long as it is integrated into something with mass. We recognize that a $300 software product is physically identical to a few $2 floppy disks, and thus we are primarily paying for the information contained therein. We are aware (or should be) that the manufactured cost of a compact disc recording is less than 50¢ (depending on volume), and that again we are paying for the (musical) information. It is, after all, the information we are after. We obtain no pleasure from the discs themselves. The manufactured cost of most books is only a few dollars. Again, it is the knowledge we are seeking (although I will admit that a well crafted book is a lovely possession).

Why then do we have difficulty comprehending the value of information when the physical content of a product shrinks to nothing? We are used to buying products that have size and weight. If design and other learned content enhance their value, so be it. Still, the paradigm that we are used to for buying a product is that we purchase an object with size and weight in a store, carry it home in a colorful shopping bag, unwrap it, and only then digest its intellectual content. We are already at the point where at least 90 percent of the value of products of this type result from their knowledge content, and we will need very soon to fully absorb the idea that knowledge without any physical construct still represents value. Otherwise, no knowledge of value will be created.

The royalty factor

So while it is true that a book could be distributed electronically to millions of people at very little cost, it will nonetheless require compensation to the publisher and author (or artist, musician, programmer, artificial reality designer, etc.) just as is the case today. Thus when you buy a virtual book from your virtual bookstore, the money that is deducted from your (electronic but not so virtual) bank account will be distributed as it is now to the distributor, publisher, and author. The point that Kay is making is that the same transaction will need to take place when you “borrow” a book from the “free” library. It may be a free service to you, but someone is going to have to pay, namely the library. In other words, libraries will not be exempt from violating copyright laws. Publishers will be quite happy with libraries distributing their virtual books, just as they are undoubtedly delighted to receive book orders from libraries today.

Yet library budgets are not unlimited-as most LJ readers will appreciate – so constraints will have to be applied. Today these constraints are enforced by requiring patrons to physically go to the library, placing limits on the selection and number of books available, putting time limits on borrowing, and other subtle and overt restrictions. The virtual library will undoubtedly find similar ways to constrain its service. It will have no choice; its budget will be set by the same political realities that libraries deal with today.

The advent of the virtual book will require rethinking the concept of buying a book. New options will need to be devised. Some information we may wish to retain indefinitely, other information we may wish to read and then discard, yet other information we may wish to sample or browse through. Some we may not wish to read at all, but will want to have as part of a database for our software based intelligent “assistants” to “read.” Different payment methods will need to be devised to handle these different situations, which in turn will necessarily be reflected in library borrowing policies.

Bootlegging in the l990s

A prerequisite to the availability of the virtual book is an effective means of software protection, and by software I mean any form of digital information. Today, computer software, which is one of the most valuable and expensive forms of information to create, can be copied and distributed with abandon. Although illegal, it happens all the time. It is estimated that the significant majority of software in use today has been illegally copied.

One person I spoke to recently, who claimed to be unaware that this practice was illegal, complained that if copying software was illegal, then why do software companies make it so easy to do? This is a profoundly important challenge. People can copy software from their friends more easily than going to the store and buying it (it can even be done over the phone).

Most children grow up with the paradigm that if they steal something, they are depriving someone else of what they have stolen. The victim of such a crime is usually not far away. Yet the crime of stealing information by breaking the “shrinkwrap” license agreement (the legal agreement that you enter into when you break the shrinkwrap on a package of software) is far more subtle. The person that the information is copied from still has the information, so it is a rather abstract concept that anyone has been deprived of anything. Of course, creators of the software have been deprived of royalties, yet remain blissfully unaware of the crime against them, except through reading occasional surveys of such practices. It is obvious, however, that carried to an extreme, the entire basis for funding the development of such expensive intellectual creations is threatened.

It was precisely this concern that killed the first generation of digital audio tape (DAT) recorders: the music industry believed compact disc recordings would be illegally copied. Once movies exist in high definition digital form, the concern will exist there as well. The fact is that we have the technical means to enforce information licensing laws and agreements through electronic “locks.” What is needed is the social compact that we should pay for the information we use because otherwise there will be no useful information to buy or steal. It is not just the locks on our cars or homes that keep intruders out (to the extent that we do succeed in that endeavor), but rather the combination of the technical means (the locks) and the social compact, which is a combination of the law matched with a respect that this is a law that responsible citizens will honor. As the technology blazes ahead, law and social consciousness need to catch up.

All libraries great and small

With library limits (on availability, deadlines, restrictions, etc.) again in place, there will be a niche for the (virtual) bookstore. Will there be a niche for the local library? In my view, the funding source has been and is likely to continue to be local. There will undoubtedly be national libraries of various kinds (particularly in scientific and other professional areas), but the city of New York and the town of Mill Valley will still have the same incentive and political will to provide local library service to its citizens, which may very well include making available the notebook computers themselves.

What about paper books? They will ultimately reach antiquity, but because of their enormous installed base, this transition will not be instantaneous. When fully effective virtual books become available later this decade, some of the more progressive libraries will begin to incorporate them into their services. As virtual books become more dominant, libraries will begin to emphasize them over paper books, with some libraries on the leading edge and some on the trailing edge. When the paper book does reach antiquity, what will happen to those big library buildings? The role of buildings is not an issue solely of concern to libraries. When we can readily meet with people anywhere with high definition video conferencing (eventually with moving, high-resolution, three-dimensional holographic images) the purpose of buildings will undergo its own transformation, a topic we will examine in a future column.

Personally, I take the view of the library as the leading force in society for gathering knowledge and making it universally available, a service that is a prerequisite for a democratic society. Librarians are charged with guiding and shaping that process. They serve as society’s guides to knowledge and where to find it. These roles will only become more important with time, so long as we take the broad view of what the concept of library represents.

Reprinted with permission from Library Journal, March 1992. Copyright © 1992, Reed Elsevier, USA

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