Not in Our Lifetime: Are Libraries Dead?

By Gwen Sinclair
Librarian, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa Library

Because I am a librarian, people often ask me, “Do we still need libraries now that everything is online?” My stock answer goes something like this: “‘Everything’ is not and will not be available online in my lifetime, and even if it were, we would still need  libraries.”

The belief that practically everything, from every book ever written to all of the films ever made, has been digitized and is available online for free has taken root in the collective minds of nearly everyone. However, if you dig a little deeper, you will realize that a lot of miracles would have to happen before “everything” could be digitized and posted online.

There are several roadblocks to scanning all of the books, periodicals, archival records, films, videos, audio cassettes, photographs, and ephemera available in libraries and putting them online. First and foremost is funding. A digitization project involves more than simply scanning a set of books and uploading the content. Even with high-speed automated book scanners, humans are still needed to select the books, prepare them for scanning, position them on the scanner, and so forth. Items that have folds or tears must be flattened or mended before they are scanned. Care must be taken not to damage fragile film or magnetic tapes during the digitization process. Photographic prints, negatives, or slides must be positioned precisely, and some post-processing may be necessary to straighten, crop, or clean up images.  

While some work can be done by volunteers, paid staff like Koen Yamane, a student assistant in the MAGIS lab at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library, usually perform the scanning work. In the brightly-lit lab in the basement of Hamilton Library, he demonstrates the steps involved in scanning a Japanese map from World War II. First, he carefully uses a brush to remove debris from the map’s surface so that the image will be clean. Next, he wipes off the scanner with a microfiber cloth. He then carefully places the map in the scanner, which looks like a giant vacuum sealer, and guides it through with his fingers. After the scanning is complete, he must examine the digital image on the scanner’s monitor to make sure that it has scanned the image evenly and there are no lines visible as artifacts of the scanning process.

Koen Yamane, a student assistant in the MAGIS lab at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library, demonstrates the steps involved in scanning a Japanese map from World War II. First, he carefully uses a brush to remove debris from the map’s surface so that the image will be clean.

Next, he wipes off the scanner with a microfiber cloth. He then carefully places the map in the scanner, which looks like a giant vacuum sealer, and guides it through with his fingers.

After the scanning is complete, he must examine the digital image on the scanner’s monitor to make sure that it has scanned the image evenly and there are no lines visible as artifacts of the scanning process.

To gain additional insight into the human components of the digitization process, I spoke with Alice Kim, a graduate student who works in the digitization lab at the UHM Library. Kim described the basic steps in scanning a book. If the book can be destructively scanned (in other words, the binding is cut off with a guillotine so that the pages can be fed into a sheet feed scanner), it can be quickly scanned in 10 to 20 minutes. However, if the book cannot be disbound, it might take her 1-2 hours to scan on a flatbed scanner. Once the pages have been scanned, Kim eyeballs the page images to make sure that all of the pages are present and legible. She then combines the individual page images into a single document.

In addition to performing the actual scanning, Kim also creates metadata for scanned publications. She records information about books like the subject, title, author, publisher, date, and edition. In the case of a film, the producer, director, running time, and cast will be recorded. For photographs, the photographer, date, location, and subject matter are noted. Capturing metadata is not always straightforward and may require specialized knowledge. If the material is in a foreign language, like the Japanese map mentioned above, the staff members responsible for metadata must have the ability to read the language, sometimes in older, unfamiliar scripts. Without metadata, searchers would have difficulty finding material or distinguishing one publication from another. If you want confirmation of this, just search for a picture of yourself in Google. You will retrieve a lot of images that do not include you because the metadata is missing or insufficient to allow precision searching.

On top of staff salaries, funding is needed for technology. Digitization operations may require an array of different types of scanners, from high-speed book scanners to giant flatbed scanners for odd-sized material. Scanners can cost upwards of $15,000 all the way to $150,000. Digitization of media requires equipment such as film projectors, turntables, or cassette players. In addition to the scanners themselves, it is necessary to have a software platform on which to upload the books or other material. While there are some freely available products like DSpace, IT staff are still required to maintain these systems. Content must be backed up in secure off-site locations and must be migrated to new platforms as they become available. In addition, server space for the digital files is quite expensive, especially for image or video files. Software like Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat Pro, or FineReader are also required for post-processing.

To get a sense of how expensive it is to produce high-quality digital versions of print books, consider that the University of Hawaiʻi Press recently received a $90,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to digitize 100 books from its out-of-print backfile (University of Hawaiʻi Press). That’s right, $900 per book!

Assuming that a library, archive, or historical society has funding to pay staff, purchase equipment, and store image files, the second hurdle is copyright, and it is a big one. Copyright is “a form of intellectual property law [that] protects original works of authorship including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture” (Library of Congress). The copyright holder has the right to determine how the work is reproduced. Copyright laws vary from country to country, so one cannot apply U.S. copyright laws to books that were published in, say, Japan. Libraries can only digitize and upload material to a public web site if it is not under copyright or if the copyright owner (usually the author or publisher) has granted permission to digitize the content. Tracking down copyright holders to get permission to digitize their works is enormously time-consuming, so most digitization projects don’t include copyrighted works.

A third important stumbling block to digitizing “everything” is that the information value of material held in libraries and archives varies. It makes sense that a library would prioritize the scanning of the memoirs of a person who was incarcerated in an internment camp during World War II over a pamphlet from 1923 about how to raise chickens. Funding agencies select digitization projects to support based on the subject matter and information value of the material. While a small number of items are of broad interest, vast quantities of publications and records are insignificant to most people. Consider this: less than 20 percent of the documents held in the National Archives in Washington, D.C., have been digitized, and only 15 percent of those digitized documents are publicly accessible (National Archives and Records Administration).

Finally, even when a complete set of publications about a particular topic is available online, people still require help finding and using the information. The need for some sort of assistance will persist no matter how much information is available online. Every day, librarians help people find information that is accessible on the web because they simply don’t know where to look or are not skilled at constructing an effective internet search. Furthermore, at least 20 percent of people in the U.S. do not have access to high-speed internet at home (Pew Research Center) and many of them rely on libraries for computers and/or internet access.

Does this mean that librarians have job security or that libraries are guaranteed sufficient funding to maintain operations? Far from it. Each year it is a struggle to convince funding authorities of the value of libraries and the need for staff.  There is almost an attitude of “If it’s not online, it must not be very important.” Apparently, this attitude causes people to base their research on what is easily findable online. I have seen students change their topics when the information for their research projects is not available online. Even seasoned researchers have a tendency to rely solely on what is on the internet, although the best source of information may be sitting on a shelf in a library or archive. As Kim noted, “Not everything is digital. Many publishers still publish only in print.”

Even when material is available digitally, users need help to identify authentic, relevant information, and that is where libraries and librarians can help. Kim explained, “My duty is not only digitizing, but making history more relevant” by drawing connections between the scanned material and people’s lives. Another role for libraries is the curation of collections of quality material and the provision of value-added functionality. One such project is the UHM Library’s Story Map for the UHM campus showing how it has grown from the early 1900s to the present. It includes digitized historic maps and aerial photographs and an interactive map of the campus as it looks today.

To be sure, libraries need to do a better job of promoting the value of their collections, whether they are online or not. One way to achieve this is to allow users to interact with primary source material in archives or special collections. Such hands-on opportunities serve to demonstrate that there is still an intangible value in touching and holding tangible documents. Kim shared this story: once when she was digitizing correspondence in the Daniel K. Inouye Congressional Papers, she scanned a letter that had the original signature of President John F. Kennedy. “It was really cool,” she said.

Works Cited

Kim, Alice. Personal interview. 14 April 2018.

Library of Congress. “Copyright in General.” https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-general.html#what. Accessed 10 April 2018.

National Archives and Records Administration. Strategic Plan 2018-2022. February 2018. https://www.archives.gov/about/plans-reports/strategic-plan/strategic-plan-2018-2022. Accessed 21 April 2018.

Pew Research Center. “Internet/Broadband Fact Sheet.” 5 February 2018. http://www.pewinternet.org/fact-sheet/internet-broadband/. Accessed 10 April 2018.

University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa Library MAGIS. “University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa: A Look Back.” http://go.hawaii.edu/L8f. Accessed 18 April 2018.

University of Hawaiʻi Press. “UH Press Awarded $90K Open Book Grant.” https://uhpress.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/uh-press-awarded-90k-open-book-grant/. 24 April 2017. Accessed 9 April 2018.

Yamane, Koen. Personal interview. 16 April 2018.

One Response

  1. Even if everything were digitized, there would still be a need for libraries. Some of us need to hold physical books. We love libraries and frequent them like others frequent coffee shops. The libraries in my area have full agendas of book-related activities and they are always full of adults and children loading up on books.

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