“Throw It in the Charles!”

Here’s some depressing news to begin your Thursday (http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/05/gutenberg-2-0).  Harvard’s magisterial Widener Library is taking it on the chin along with the rest of the nation’s libraries.  One scientist there had a good place for it, or so he thought: “Throw it in the Charles.”  Increasingly this is the view of many who used to pin their academic careers on libraries.  The completely erroneous but will-not-die notion that ‘everything’s on the Internet’ continues to feed this misplaced idea.  In many ways, it’s like the falsehood that blogging will eventually replace newspapers.  If blogging does, what will bloggers write about since about 90% of their reporting is re-reporting the news others have gleaned?  Likewise, if libraries go, where will the content come from?  Tweets?  Social networking sites? Google?  Perhaps that will be the case in 25 years; but we’re nowhere near that now.

Still, when you couple this article with the Ithaka report released last week, a very grim picture starts to unfold.  Google’s 12 million or so titles (still, mind you, tied up in litigation both here and in Europe) is a drop in the proverbial bucket compared with what’s available.  Moreover, the world of the Web is what’s-your-best-15-minutes-ago?  Anything older than that and no one notices.  Sooner thereafter it gets pulled for something not only more recent but also more popular.  Do we really want to run the world’s knowledge bank on the neoteric and the popular?

I exaggerate but not by much.  I sincerely hope we do not rush headlong into something new–something we Americans are astonishingly prone to do–only to discover later that we don’t know what we’ve got until it’s gone.  I can envision a world where everything is on the Web.  I can also envision that same world filled with 404-Error-Files Not Found, denials of access, and overloaded bandwidth.  Perhaps we would do well to slow down our Kevorkian instincts when it comes to libraries.  Can we wait and see if they really are dying–and if they are, letting them go as they will– instead of just shooting them in the head right now?

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