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At most libraries, the hand-typed card catalogues thumbed by generations of patrons have been supplanted by electronic indexes accessed via PCs locally or over the Web. Now that Google has agreed to scan millions of books from five major libraries and to make their contents searchable on the Web – a project that experts say is likely to yield spinoff technologies that drastically lower the costs of digitization and catalyze similar efforts worldwide – can the disappearance of libraries themselves be far behind?

Most librarians say no, as our story “The Infinite Library,” reports. Whatever the form in which book content is stored, librarians believe, people will still come to libraries for expert help finding information, for public access to the Internet, or for the comfortable atmosphere libraries provide for reading and reflection. And there will always be a need, professionals point out, for places that preserve traditional paper books.

All of that may be true. But there is still room to wonder how libraries will trump the expediency of being able to download a whole book over the Web, at little or no cost, instead of schlepping to the library. Print-on-demand services are spreading fast (see “The Future of Books,” January 2005), and electronic reading devices will continue to improve until they rival the resolution and usability of regular books. At that point, the only burning reason for a physical trip to the library will be to see a copy of a needed book that has not yet been digitized, or that has been digi­tized but is not downloadable due to copyright restrictions.

So in reality, the future of libraries may rest on just two factors: the rate at which digitization and display technologies ­advance, and the evolution of laws and practices regarding copyrights. In the United States, books published before January 1, 1923, are in the public domain and can be copied and redistributed by anyone, free of charge. At the same time, many books written in the past five to eight years have been published in both print and electronic form, and libraries have arranged with publishers to make some of these new e-books available for loan. (Borrowed e-books typically “expire,” becoming unreadable after a certain period.) It’s arranging access to the huge number of in-between books – those published between 1923 and the late 1990s – that is the critical issue.

If publishers and authors maintain their tight control on these books after they are scanned, public libraries will still have an important place as a free source for them, even if they can loan out only a few electronic copies at a time. On the other hand, if Google and others can arrange with publishers and authors to allow low-cost downloads of whole books – a likely prospect, seeing that it gives publishers a new way to squeeze revenues from their backlists – then libraries will inevitably recede in importance. It’s a simple matter of convenience: free or low-cost access to digital books will make libraries more dispensable. Librarianship isn’t about to disappear as a profession. But if librarians want a steady supply of patrons, they’ll need to find ways to keep their institutions relevant in the digital age.

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