November 21, 2009

Let's get Digital!

Books or digital files? Where should a library direct its future and funding? I understand why this is such a struggle; I struggle with it too. While I was an MLIS student, I enjoyed being able to access the majority of the articles I needed on my laptop from the comfort of my own home. I would become irate when I couldn't find the article I needed in an e-journal and had to physically go to the campus library. I also hated having to print out the article or copy it from a book. Who needs all that extra paper anyway? On the other hand, I still buy books. I, like many other librarians, am building a small personal library that contains everything from children's books to scholarly periodicals. I just received two new books in the mail today.

The struggle with going totally digital is that the book is such a big part of human culture; however, so is the computer. One library has decided to make the switch to a totally digital collection. Cushing Academy in Ashburnham, MA has gone full throttle digital. With this change comes many differing views on what this means for libraries, the most prominent being: Can you call it a library if you don't have any books in it? Perhaps one of the biggest problems for librarians is an entirely digital collection seems to negate the purpose of a library building and (gasp) librarians. On the other hand, while whole libraries can be digitized, a large percentage of the population lack the means to access digital collections. P.S. I see a huge opportunity here!

Ultimately, Cushing was able to make this change because it is a well-funded private school. Unless schools across America get the same kind of funding, most publicly funded schools will be waiting years before they can make the change to digital, if digital is the best choice for libraries. Cushing will serve as a guinea pig for other schools hoping to make the same change. Some of the anxiety surrounding this issue stems from the feeling that there's no going back to a paper collection. This is not so. Books will probably never totally disappear from our culture. I think libraries will continue to offer a hybrid model to their users. There will be some books and some digital books. In the event that libraries do go full throttle digital, the transformation will be more gradual than Cushing's. Until there is enough funding and support to go all digital, librarians can breath a sigh of relief, but continue to focus on developing their digital skills so they can be ready to lead their patrons into the future.

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