D-Lib Magazine
February 2000

Volume 6 Number 2

ISSN 1082-9873


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On eBooks, Open Archives, and Libraries

Perhaps you have seen the recent ad from Microsoft for their Reader technology displaying eBooks with ClearType. "The future of reading is clear," Microsoft tells us, and then offers a timeline of the next twenty years. In 2015, the ad notes, "former high-tech rivals unite to fund the conversion of the entire Library of Congress to eBooks." By 2020, "ninety percent of all titles are now sold in electronic as well as paper form. Webster alters its 1st definition of the word "book" to refer to eBook titles read on the screen."

One might quibble about the dates and the emphasis on the eBook format (Microsoft, as far as we know, cannot yet control the future), but they have accurately outlined a general trend. At some point in the relatively near future, the bulk of current and retrospective printed literature will be available in digital form. Moreover, it is likely that digital representations of books will meet the needs of the vast majority of users.

In this month’s issue of D-Lib Magazine, Bruce Kingma’s economic study illustrates that physical libraries are expensive places to store books. If, as the Microsoft ad suggests, the greatest research library in the world will soon be available online, can we afford to maintain other major research libraries for the few researchers who may need to actually consult the physical volumes?

Libraries, of course, are much more than physical warehouses for books. A library is distinguished as much by the services it provides as by the size of its collections. One such service, as Kingma’s article reminds us, is to facilitate access to materials. In the future, librarians may spend time assisting users find information in decentralized collections of eBooks, online journals, and preprint servers rather than in the library’s own physical holdings, but the basic service function will remain.

Perhaps no service is more important than a library’s role in preservation. The Open Archives Initiative discussed in two articles in this month’s D-Lib Magazine is a fundamentally important experiment in self-publishing. But will it create archives? One of the most important functions true archives (and libraries) perform is as guarantors of the reliability, integrity, and authenticity of objects over time. It remains to be seen whether the admirable experiment in self-publishing outlined in this month’s issue can serve this same role.

So bring on the eBooks! With luck, print libraries will be able to redirect the comparatively small portion of their budget that is spent on their least interesting (but perhaps most visible) function: the storage of stuff. The primary focus, whether with print or with digital, will remain where it has always been: on service to users.

Peter Hirtle
Associate Editor

(Please note: Microsoft, ClearType and Reader are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation.)

Copyright (c) 2000 Corporation for National Research Initiatives.

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DOI: 10.1045/february2000-editorial