On books

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We are used to discussion about the future of the book. Occasionally heated, certainly, in the library arena as so much process, practice and professional investment is book-based. The last six months or so have seen an intensification of activity around a future in which the position of the book may be very different. A lot of discussion in the past might have been around the user experience, and had a necessarily hypothetical feel about it. However, the conversation is now rather more concrete, as Google and Amazon, and to some extent Apple, have effectively changed the game, spawned a range of catch-up activities, and made discussions about experience, workflow, and business arrangements real. Announcements seem to flow daily – from all parts of the supply chain, from existing players and from new entrants (see the current speculation about the Apple tablet for example).
I wonder is this a case where we – libraries – are underestimating the rate of change? Having seen the flip with journals – admittedly a much more closely bounded space – I wonder are we underestimating how changed the book environment will be in, say, five or ten years time. Here are some sketchy and preliminary notes …
Clearly, different types of libraries have very different positions. Some set of research, national and other libraries recognize a mission to preserve the scholarly record and will want some collective assurance – within structures not yet formed – that they are stewarding that record. Some – think of busy, large public libraries – will have a stewardship role in relation to some materials, but may also have moved closer to a retail model for other materials, where currency and interest are important and materials have to justify their occupancy of scarce shelf space.
I see three ‘switches’ as important for libraries.
The space switch
Library space is under pressure. On the one hand there is the need to support ad-hoc rendezvous and social learning styles within congenial spaces. On the other there may be institutional pressure to reclaim space which is devoted to storing print materials which are seen to be releasing progressively less value into research and learning activity. At the same time more of those materials are available digitally. Balancing local provision, off-site storage (whether secured individually or collaboratively), and expanding digital access while meeting and anticipating changing research and learning behaviors and expectations is complex. However these balance out, the pressure on print is strong. The physical library model, in which materials are distributed to multiple locations to be shared by collocated users is being superseded. However, this is a transition that is still being managed.
The workflow switch
Carole Palmer has a nice phrase ‘reading avoidance’ to refer to the researcher’s practice of
The consumer switch
Some implications



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