What are the consequences of libraries going online?

Editorials featured in the Forum section are solely the opinions of their individual authors.

When you step into Hunt Library, does it feel like you’re seeing the same old books on the shelves? Maybe that’s because you are. Out of the $1.95 billion spent on libraries in 2005, only 10 percent, or $195.2 million, of those funds were spent on real live books. In the past decade, the number of books that libraries across the globe have to offer has also declined 10 percent. Despite this mass decline, employment has actually increased 10 percent from that of 10 years ago. Econ majors know that adding more labor is a way to foster growth, leading to an overall increase in output.

If every Hunt dweller wearing a library nametag could single-handedly conceive, write, publish, and distribute a book, this economic theory would hold true. However, the number of books that come in and out of the library is determined by you, the readers (assuming that you have ventured into Hunt in the first place). Each time you check out a book from the library, you have effectively given one vote to that book. (If you still want to play economics, you are the consumer and you are exercising your consumer sovereignty.) If a book gets enough votes, it gets to stay on the shelf.

Each time you forgo the walk to Hunt and the energy expended to locate and procure the book, choosing instead to find the information through other means, such as the Internet, you cast an imaginary vote against that book, and it is one step closer to checking out — for good.

Like the African wild dog, the Pony Express, or the human appendix, the library is facing eventual extinction. Library services are becoming less of a commodity and are being replaced by cheaper, faster, more convenient, and more extensive resources found via the Internet.

If you happen to cast more votes for literature on the screen than on the printed page, don’t stop reading. I’m not trying to make the Internet look like a burglar of the publishing industry. It’s only trying to break into the library system that once had a monopoly on the game of knowledge.

Not that these break-ins are necessarily crimes. Take the Google Library Project, announced by Google in December 2004. The project’s goal is to digitize five major university libraries, making all of the information each library has in print available online. Not only would you be able to visit the library while you’re having a loud conversation on your cell phone, eating an Italian hoagie, or naked (all conceivable in real life), you would be able to experience any or all of the above situations at five different universities (more difficult). And not only would you have access to all those resources, but to out-of-copyright and out-of-print resources as well. You’d have access to new material the nanosecond it becomes available. No waiting lists, no late fees, no return slots.

If the Internet is really the library’s online equivalent, any student with this tool at hand would use it over trudging across campus and climbing four flights of stairs in search of a narrow fraction of the same material. However, every medium has its drawbacks. If you’re the type of student who likes to highlight and write in the margins of your books until they’re unrecognizable, you’re out of luck. While virtual text is always readily available and often free, it is also often un-copyable, un-highlightable, and harder to see due to a computer screen’s low resolution — NYU’s Office of Communications posits that people read about 25 percent more slowly off a computer screen than off a printed page.

More importantly, if we’re all in our pajamas doing our research at home, what will happen to the student camaraderie at the library? What about the feeling of being consumed by the stacks? What about the satisfaction of being able to hold in your hand the book with the exact information that you need? Of creasing the first page? Of reading the margin notes of others who struggled over the book like you’re doing now? What will happen to that human connection? Odds are that the library can find you a paper copy of any text that can also be found on the Internet and obtain it for you within a few weeks, but the Internet will never be able to replicate the tangible relationships that readers have with books and with each other that are so ingrained in library subculture.

That being said, the issue extends far beyond our quest to preserve our own cultural heritage; the availability of material internationally on the Internet risks the loss of countless indigenous languages all over the world. The Internet provides the ability to access materials published in our country as well as also those published in other countries, acting as a bigger, more diversified library than all the world’s libraries combined. With English as the unofficial language of the Internet, it is the language into which publications in minority languages are most often translated. So while we are gaining access to all the literature that is published anywhere in the world, Americans are getting something that seems even better — an Americanized version of this collection.

Here, the Internet acts as a catalyst of reverse globalization — instead of bringing small, developing countries into closer contact with the larger world powers, it is turning those cultural contributions into texts that their native speakers can’t even understand. If media in these languages are not available, the world will forgo cultural pluralism in favor of a sterilized information superhighway that only runs through the developed world.

When your computer is the last thing you pack up before heading back to school after winter break and the first thing you unpack while you’re waiting for your flight, it’s easy to forget that there are some things we will never be able to access via the Internet. The smell of old books, for example, or the feel of a new cover. A smooth, wooden table where you can write a paper (or a program) in silence. A real, live person who doesn’t give you a mechanical list of options and tell you to press “one” on your keypad before helping you find what you’re looking for. No matter how comprehensive a research and literary tool the Internet becomes, scrolling through a novel on a computer screen will never hold a candle to turning the pages with your own hands. And if we’re lucky, it will never have to.