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The future of libraries

by Michael Nielsen on October 18, 2007

Via Peter Brantley, a beautiful comment from Winston Tabb, the Librarian at The Johns Hopkins University, which provides a nice lens through which to view the challenging situation libraries find themselves in:

Data centers are the new stacks.

It’s an interesting time to be a librarian. I spent a couple of months earlier this year working in the State Library of Queensland. I met some librarians who were incredibly upbeat about current opportunities, and others who were in denial. One day, at lunch, I overhead a conversation between two librarians discussing the “impossibility” of putting the entire back catalogue of major newspapers online. I wonder how long before Google or someone else unveils such a catalogue.

Update: In comments, John Dupuis, Head of the Science Library at York University, points to a thoughtful series of essays on the opportunities and challenges now before libraries.

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  1. aram permalink

    Lexis-Nexis has had such a catalogue online, and full-text searchable, for at least the last 15 years (when I started using it). And not just major newspapers, but regional ones too. Their main disadvantage relative to google is that you have pay for access.

  2. The New York Times recently removed the access toll for most of it’s entire backfile online.

    Most major papers have digitized most or all of their past history (The Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail certainly have back to the beginning in the 1800s) and most Canadian universities will have subscribed. I imagine they might make them free (ie. ad supported) once they’ve amortized the initial cost of the digitization. The Star database is free at branches of the Toronto Public Library. This page gives an overview of what my institution has newspaper-wise.

    And yes, it is a really exciting time to be a librarian with a lot of possibilities for the future.

    Feel free to drop by the science library at York University next time you’re in Toronto.

  3. Michael Nielsen permalink

    Aram: Funny you should say that. It’s almost exactly what I said to Jen when I got home that night. Of course, I’m sure the librarians knew about Lexis-Nexis. What they were talking about was the difficulty of the older materials – one commented that the cost of scanning all the old stuff was “inconceivably large”, if I recall. Of course, “inconceivably large” = “pocket change” for the right people.

  4. Maybe it is not necessary to put ALL the old materials online. It depends on the needs for them. But classic works should be treated carefully. I still remember the first time I borrowed the book “The Principles of Quantum Mechanics” by Dirac in 1965 from my university library. I was so surprised to find that the book was stored in “Book Storge” which was small and dark, and worsely, a bit wet. The book has been swallowed by dust. I felt sad for Dirac, but more for ourselves.

  5. The Vlad permalink

    Hi Michael,

    The NYT ran a headline story yesterday on the attempts of Google and Microsoft to generate digitized libraries. Not surprisingly, many people are worried about the for-profit motives of such initiatives.



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