I've worked in a university library all my working life (a working life which began a lot later than it should have). I've worked in the same library for thirteen years. And I find it harder and harder, from the changes I've witnessed in that time, to believe that the library as an institution is going to survive.
There's a tremendous amount of whistling past the graveyard on this subject. Scores of articles are written disputing this diagnosis. But I am not convinced.
I think the fact that the word 'library' has so many uses in the field of computing is a big giveaway. The library has gone from being something tangible and concrete to something intangible and virtual.
When I tell people I work in a library, they start asking me about books and assume that a library is mostly about books. This is quaint. Libraries are no longer about books. They are about information-- something abstract.
It should be understood that librarians, people who work in the librarian profession and who have a qualification in library science-- and please note that I am a library assistant, not a librarian-- are nearly all technophiles and neophiles (that is, people who love anything that's new). The average librarian is not a fusty, dusty old lady who has her hair rolled up into a bun, who shushes noisy readers and venerates books. The average librarian is a forty-something man or woman who wears jeans and goes to Bob Dylan concerts and has no more interest in books than your average college graduate.
Librarians get excited, more than anything else, about new ideas-- 'problem-based learning', 'unconferences', digital archives, podcasts, RSS feeds, QR codes, and so forth. These are all things I've actually heard librarians get excited about. Their hearts are not in the shelves of their libraries. Their hearts are in library science journals and at library conferences. The books on the shelf are boring-- you can't do anything with them.
But I don't actually think that the death of the library can be blamed on the trendiness of librarians. I suspect it's inevitable, that technology is simply making libraries obsolete.
The truth is that computers can now do what libraries traditionally did. Sometimes a student or an academic comes to the issue desk looking for an e-journal article and, after several fruitless attempts to find it on the library website, I resort to Google and usually find it there. When I do this, I tilt the screen away from the reader so he or she can't see what I'm doing. It's more out of shame and embarrassment than anything else. Increasingly, I feel that library assistants and librarians simply help library users to do, or to find out, what they could have done or found out themselves with a little bit of effort. (In this, I think, we are rather like travel agents.)
Technology pervades every aspect of library work now. Self-issue machines and self-return machines account for a huge amount of loans and returns. One small section of my own library (the Short Loan section, for the most in-demand books) has been fitted with RIFD technology-- this is an electronic tag in each book which can be read by a sensor on a machine. The student not only can but must borrow the book, renew the book and return the book through a machine. (Most of our books, outside the Short Loan, can still be brought to the issue desk to be borrowed and returned and renewed. This is only because RFID technology is expensive and we couldn't afford to tag the entire collection.) Some people still prefer to come to the desk and deal with a human being, but every year, users of the library become more accustomed to the idea of using the machines. Some students even apologize when they come to the desk. (The machines don't always work, for various reasons.)
Now students can pay overdue fines over the internet or on a machine in the library, using credit from their student cards. They can book group study rooms online. They can apply to consult theses (which are kept in our store-room and have to be fetched by library staff) online. Every year more of our services are available online.
I raged against this trend for a few years, before I came to the conclusion that Luddism is pointless. Technology will advance, and technology will be used. There's no point resisting it.
When I started working in the library, the old-fashioned card catalogues-- the sort you see spectrally scattered in Ghostbusters-- were still in use, though they were already an anachronism and were kept available only because some older academics liked to use them. A few years ago, they were kept only as ornaments. Now they're gone, and the only mark of their passing was a circular email asking any library staff member if they wanted to take one home as a memento.
When I started working in the library, we used the traditional type of date-stamps-- the sort you pushed down to leave an inked date on a label inside the book. We had three or four different date-stamps and they had to be set to a different date every morning. It was a pain and it was labour-intensive and it was difficult to do without getting ink on your fingers. But the book's label then had a visible history. You could see that it was borrowed once in 1996, then not again until 1999, then three times in 2000, then not again until 2005, and so on. Aside from being quite useful, in terms of showing library staff at a glance how often a particular book was borrowed, there was a certain poetry to this. Now we issue paper 'receipts' which bear a printed date upon them, and which are discarded and don't leave any trail or trace behind them.
I remember the day we stopped using the date-stamps. They just disappeared. There was no ceremony, no fuss. Nobody remarked upon it. It just happened in one morning and was never mentioned again.
Every year, the staff in the library are shown statistics demonstrating how book loans and 'footfall' in the library has fallen over the last few years. The trend is inexorably downwards, and quite dramatic in its momentum.
All of this automation frees library staff to do other work, we are told. But surely there is a limit to that process. Surely even that 'other work' is increasingly usurped by technology.
I simply can't see much of a role for library assistants within ten or fifteen years. I see hardly more of a role for librarians. (There will always be some need for librarians, I think-- although I think they will increasingly be archivists rather than librarians. Archives contain material that either isn't digitised or whose importance lies in its very physicality-- like manuscripts.) And I can see the library itself disappearing as an institution within twenty or thirty years. The only libraries that will remain, I fear, will be major libraries like the Library of Congress or Ireland's National Library. The local library will be a memory, like the cattle market and the rag-and-bone man.
So visit your neighbourhood library today, and smile kindly at the library assistant at the issue desk. Because both of them are living on borrowed time.