Library Closures: Perhaps there is a Solution?

WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.

I published an article at http://bit.ly/2P7tDj9 about the recent closure of the David Library of the American Revolution in Pennsylvania. The closure of any library is always sad news, of course. However, I also see a solution and perhaps even a ray of sunshine in such announcements.

Most libraries close simply because of financial difficulties. It costs a lot of money for buildings, heat, air conditioning, electricity, and employees’ salaries. Oh yes, there is also a major expense for books and other materials that are the primary purpose of a library.

Smaller libraries typically serve a limited number of patrons: only those who live somewhere near the library and can use the library’s facilities without spending a lot of time and money in travel, hotel rooms, restaurants, and more in order to use the facility. When it comes to attracting visitors to a library, geography is perhaps the biggest impediment of all.

In contrast, let’s consider online libraries.

Scanning all the books and taking digital photographs of other items in a library costs money for the labor and scanners. (High-end scanners are often rented, not purchased.) However, those expenses usually are paid back once the library closes and stops paying for the building, heat, air conditioning, and electricity. The savings typically outweigh the earlier expenses.

Admittedly, even an online library has to pay for web servers, employees to keep the servers running, other employees to run the library and continue to add new material to the holdings, administrative expenses, and more. However, these new expenses usually are much lower than the cost of running a physical library.

The second advantage of an online library is undoubtedly the biggest: patrons are able to “attend” and use the library’s materials regardless of location. An online library is no longer is restricted to serving patrons who live within a limited distance. Most of the online libraries serve would-wide users.

I well remember the FamilySearch Library’s decision some years ago to digitize. (That Library also remains open and available to walk-in visitors in Salt Lake City.)

The senior management of the FamilySearch Library had considered digitizing the library’s holdings for some time. There were many issues to be considered, but one relevant to this discussion was the thought “if we place everything online, nobody will come to visit in person anymore.”

You probably know the rest of the story. Management launched a huge digitization effort. The effort has consumed years and is still ongoing. Usage of the library mushroomed! Instead of serving thousands of people every year, the FamilySearch Library almost immediately was serving millions.

As to in-person visitors, the Family History Library now has many more in-person visitors than ever before in history. In short, that library is now more popular than ever before, both in-person and online. I believe there are multiple reasons for that success but obviously the online access to the library’s holding was never an impediment.

Will smaller libraries have the same success? Will a small library become an instant success when going online? I don’t know the answer to those questions. Indeed, there are many factors involved. However, I know that I frequently access libraries that are thousands of miles from my home. You can do the same, if that library’s holdings are available online.

I also realize that handling a printed book, especially an older volume, is somewhat emotionally satisfying. You can never appreciate the smell and feel of a digital image of an old book. However, I would consider that to be a minor drawback when accessing distant books and other material of interest that are housed in a distant library.

And, yes, I will pay a few dollars for access to a library that is available across the country or even across the world, instead of paying travel expenses for an in-person visit.

Converting to an online library or perhaps to a combined online and in-person facility involves many decisions, none of them simple. Indeed, there will still be financial issues: will patrons pay a modest fee to remotely access a library’s facilities? Can modern books still under copyright be made available? (Yes, all major city libraries already do that. Ask any librarian.)

In short, perhaps everyone should see challenges as opportunities. In the 21st century, libraries do not have to be large, physical buildings.

What is more important: housing physical books or satisfying the needs and desires of worldwide patrons?

11 Comments

Many of the public libraries in my community have reduced shelf space for paper books for all the reasons you outline. Patrons are encouraged to use online library books. You can check out ebook readers and the library staff helps the less tech savvy. The Libby app is fantastic for checking out library ebooks.

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David Paul Davenport February 21, 2020 at 3:30 am

The need for a physical library will continue because most are community centers – stry time for children, after school tutoring, rooms where groups of 8-12 young people use computers and simultaneously play video games, meeting rooms are used “constantly” for Tai Chi for the elderly, Yoga for those so inclined, etc etc. The super specialized research collections like the American Revolution Library you mention is a good candidate for going on-line because its patrons don’t need to walk in IF the finding aids are sufficiently detailed to allow patrons to find materials quickly (unlike our National Archives where intimate knowledge of how agencies generate documents is necessary to wade through the record groups, etc.

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Online access is of course wonderful. But I worry about the ongoing destruction of hard copy sources and physical repositories while relying entirely on electronic storage. The great sci-fi novelist Neal Stephenson has often contemplated how one massive man-made or solar electromagnetic pulse (EMP) could instantly wipe out a large chunk of our collective history. But then I’m not a big ‘cloud computing’ fan either. Call me a Luddite, I guess.

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And what happens to all of the books when they have been digitized? If they end up in landfills then this is a step backward. And publishers are pushing back on libraries lending copies of ebooks. Macmillan now allows libraries to purchase only one copy of newly released ebooks which means patrons will wait for months to read their favorite authors.

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I visited the David Library and found it and the town where it was located, Washington Crossing, PA, helpful and pleasant (Washington Crossing is on my list of places to go back to). The librarian found a reference to an ancestor during the Revolutionary War. There are good reasons for online resources (Internet Archive is one of my favorites), but there are also reasons to go to places and visit local resources whether they are online or not. Those places can give a sense of time and space. As for the Family History Library, visitation may be up, the main floor has gone high tech as the LDS is using it more for recruiting membership. The hours have been extended a bit, I think. But I have found the number of researchers on other floors going down – lots of volunteers, though. If I have research, I prefer using the nearest Family History room, although its hours may be dropping because usage is down.

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I just hope adults who have migrated to digital libraries will continue to take their children, grandchildren, and young friends to public libraries. That’s where kids can get introduced to — and hooked on — books.

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As a former almost 30 year school librarian I know the problems of which you speak. The local town library does a good job, but it’s sources in non fiction (other than relating to the area) sometimes do not meet all needs-even with inter library loan, that can take time. I have found several major online “book” that seem to be very useful, at least to me. They too, have expenses, but of now do not charge. (don’t know if I can mention them). However, there is nothing like a “real book” in one’s hands. You may have mentioned those online sites previously. Thanks for discussing this topic.

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This is a very difficult issue. I don’t believe there is any perfect answer, keeping in mind the simple lack of funds that drives so many decisions now. I personally love the idea of regional and smaller libraries, such as the David Library where I once spent many happy hours. But I also have a long list of research libraries that I would dearly love to visit but which would require extensive and expensive travel, hotel rooms, etc. Realistically, I’m never likely to have the opportunity to use these libraries, however much I like the idea of their continued existence in their present form. There are two issues: access and preservation. I believe that preservation must come first, and that means modern, climate controlled buildings with all the bells and whistles. It’s difficult, costly, and sometimes impossible to convert older buildings for this purpose, the result being that many old documents and other items are becoming seriously degraded and/or lost entirely. More centralization in large, purpose built construction – as unappealing as the idea is – may be an absolute necessity if these documents are to survive even long enough to be digitized. If we fail to value and care for the original documents, it will be a great loss and the beginning of the end of real scholarship. From the point of view of availability for research purposes, there’s no question that centralization and digitization is the way to go. Even for those items that we would wish to examine or personally see, I might reasonably accomplish a long list of research needs by traveling once to a single location rather than many times to many locations. This “solution” is in no way what I would wish for, but it may be the best we can do to encourage both the needs of researchers and the preservation of fragile historical items.

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Your article made me think of this uplifting story about how online presence helped s small bookstore. See link:
http://enewspaper.sandiegouniontribune.com/infinity/article_share.aspx?guid=d86c7042-f620-4a2a-89f4-d77e7582509e

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For a small, western Wyoming historical society, we have struggled with the concept of putting our locally written, but commercially published books on our website. Your comment on page 3, “Can modern books still under copyright be made available? (Yes, all major city libraries already do that. Ask any librarian.)” was most intriguing. We asked our local librarian but she was not aware of the concept. Could you point us in the direction we need to go to follow up on this?

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    I am not an expert in library management systems so I cannot make recommendations. I know my local library has such a system and it appears to work well (to my untrained eye). FamilySearch also has a rather full-featured library management system that tracks checking in and checking out all sorts of materials.

    While I cannot make specific recommendations, a quick search on any internet search engine finds dozens of pointers to such systems. I assume the need is for a full-featured overall library management system that allows for tracking ebooks (whether covered by copyrights or not), all printed books and magazines, multimedia (music and video CDs) and all sorts of other materials that can be borrowed from a small or large library.

    I found these links during a quick search online:

    https://www.capterra.com/library-automation-software/

    https://www.softwaresuggest.com/library-management-software

    https://libero.com.au/

    I will also invite any professional librarians who might be reading these comments to post their comments and recommendations. Thanks!

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