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Director's Column

PLSJC Director Alan Hall writes a weekly column discussing library and community news, history, and other interesting subjects.

Paper Books and Electronic Books

By Alan Hall, Director, PLSJ
Publish Date - Sunday, August 18, 2013

The recent news items regarding the closure of West Virginia’s law library branches has ignited the discussion of whether “libraries” will continue to have any place in our society, now or in the future.

The West Virginia Supreme Court has studied the usage of the law libraries for some time, and has developed a thoughtful plan of redistribution of the books to lawyers, other libraries, and indeed some would return to the main collection in Charleston.

Unfortunately, the news photos that seemed to catch our attention were a private company loading up the leftovers to be recycled into paper products.

The recycling of paper is good for the environment, but somehow a library seems different.

Research and specific reference libraries are the first libraries whose purpose is being replaced with technology.  Computer databases contain much of what used to be published as “reference” with never-ending updates to keep it current.

Corporate libraries, and specialized government libraries have fallen to being replaced by technology in a time when the space and maintenance of that space is a critical cost of corporations and government.

The collections of some of those libraries have been adopted by college libraries with similar collections with the merged product providing much of the same service in a different location.

Librarians are the first to point out that not all information in the world has been digitized, and is available online.

Furthermore, some online information has been lost because it wasn’t properly maintained, and has been recovered from paper files.

Public libraries are a different story, as far as maintaining their purpose in our society.

The news of the closing of public libraries typically relates to their operational funding instead of technology taking over book collections.

Public library systems in large metropolitan areas are subject to cuts and closures such as Miami, Detroit, and Denver where local governments are reducing budgets.

The same is true for smaller libraries trying to fund operations where resources are limited.

Public libraries are also using technology as a way of serving the public’s information needs with a blend of paperbound books, online systems, and e-technology.

Public libraries have also incorporated the human element into library service, retaining librarians at the desk with a computer at their fingertips as a tool, in the same way reference books were in the past.

Library services can be accessed from home, and eBooks can be downloaded anywhere from the library collection.

Libraries were the first places in our communities to have a web page to encourage access to the library.

It has been 43 years since I first worked in a public library, and the changes have been enormous.  The mechanics of the operation of a public library have undergone such a transformation that I almost am afraid to even discuss libraries-1970.

We fingered through card files endlessly, doing whatever possible to improve access to information.  We cut articles out of magazines and newspapers and filed them on different color paper to aid in locating them.

Computer files and databases were creeping into libraries, and we wondered if they would ever take over the library operations.  We worried about Star Trek’s Library on their space ship, which responded with the answer effortlessly, and wondered if that would be the library in the future?

Well, here we are in 2013, in a library with more information resources that ever before, and the ability to connect people to what they need; whether in a paper book, an eBook, or some online system.

Our card catalog that used to access about 150,000 titles, now searches for 7 million items, and can launch into a world of library holdings.

Books exist in thin air, and return themselves into the collection.  Yet you can still sit in a chair in front of the 1902 fireplace and read a book.