There's a new book out called Bibliotech by John Palfrey where Palfrey argues that libraries still fulfill a necessary function - just maybe not the function that you are nostalgic for.
"Palfrey, the former head of the Harvard Law Library and the founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, wants a library revolution, one that remakes the institution’s technology, goals and training. Libraries are in peril, he writes, facing budget cuts and a growing perception that technology has rendered them less necessary. All that’s at stake, Palfrey argues, is America’s experiment in self-government. 'If we do not have libraries, if we lose the notion of free access to most information, the world of the haves and the have-nots will grow further and further apart. Our economy will suffer, and our democracy will be put at unnecessary risk.'"
That is a great foundational argument for why libraries are still necessary. We need libraries to fill digital divides and promote true democratic ideals. But "Palfrey’s main concern seems to be not that people will be cut off from information but that the main conduits for that information will be private companies rather than public libraries. 'The risk of a small number of technically savvy, for-profit companies determining the bulk of what we read and how we read it is enormous,' he warns. And those companies will always have incentives to offer services that are 'biased, limited, and costly.'"
And this is also a great point. Do we want Google and Amazon to be the only gate-keepers of our information sources? The convenience and cutting-edge technology that these companies offer has revolutionized many industries, but putting so much power in so few hands is always a cause for concern.
So how do libraries overcome this? "'Libraries must act as ambitiously networked institutions,' [Palfrey] reiterates, and must 'connect their network effectively with partner institutions: archives, historical societies, museums, and other cultural heritage organizations.'" Basically, libraries need to work together to make their collections accessible.
And, as a lawyer, Palfrey lends legal insights into the issues facing libraries. When discussing the move to electronic sources, including books, Palfrey notes that "[l]ibraries can purchase books and then lend them out as often as they like. But when libraries are renters rather than owners of digital materials — as is the case with e-books — their ability to lend is limited by licensing agreements. Because of longstanding copyright laws, 'the digital age could perversely become an era with less accessibility, not more, than the analog age.'" And libraries need to do everything they can to make sure that this doesn't happen.
Of course this revolution will cost money, and Palfrey argues that we need a massive infusion of cash from private philanthropic sources - like those of Joshua Bates or Andrew Carnegie.
This book is worth the read for anyone interested in the issues facing libraries and the high-level thinking that could spawn a library revolution.