What Books are Libraries For?

(cross-posted here at the Scholar Electric blog)

Books take many forms, and that variety of forms constantly growing more expansive and fluid. This phenomenon is due in large part to the encroachment of digital technologies on the world of readers, writers, publishers, and other stakeholders. But one of the stakeholders often left out of public discussions (and most academic discussion, as well) are libraries and librarians. To the extent that you might define a library as a physical space for storing, distributing, and maintaining books, libraries must respond to the book’s destabilization in form. Those lacking the necessary constitution might throw their hands in the air and despair the falling sky. But not most librarians, and not Rick Anderson over at The Scholarly Kitchen blog (“Redefining the Library, Part 1: Why?“).

The premise of Anderson’s post is that the “books” libraries were built to circulate/store/maintain is no longer the book’s dominant future form. And it follows that the ecosystem around that form (the codex) is changing, too. In order to effectively and responsibly confront these changes, libraries and librarians must reconsider some of the most basic assumptions we have about books, scholarship, publishing, etc.

The purpose of the post isn’t to offer alternative understandings of these elements of book culture, but to begin to articulate a set of questions necessary for responding to a new world of books, readers, scholars, and educators. Those questions include:

  • What is a book?
  • What does “publication” mean?
  • What does it mean to “own” a document?
  • What is a publisher?
  • Who should bear the cost of scholarly research?
  • What is the appropriate unit of sale for scholarly products?

The post is an excellent read. Although light on responses to the questions he poses (for that content, see Part II of his post), his explanation for each question’s relevance is articulate and compelling. And anyone paying attention to the pattern of his questions will more easily be able to recognize and construct similar questions within the context of their own constitution.