Viewpoint: Does a library need a building?

Availability’ is a concept developed by library science, but generalised for any information system. Obviously a library is an information system, which is accessed by end users, who give their search requests to librarians (or use the facilities themselves). The librarians will turn to in-house information retrieval systems to find books or other material that matches the request, for instance using indexing systems based on some classification scheme – Dewey’s being among the more predominant.

‘Availability’ was developed as a concept to analyse some properties of information systems based on new technology, especially the change from traditional to (at that time) more radical computerised technologies. But it has been used with considerable success for the analysis of historic systems, for instance by Lis Byberg to analyse the access to books in Norway during the 18. century.

In accessing any information system, there is a cost involved for the end user. This cost is generated by availability factors; a rather inelegant phrase covering two main categories. The first is pragmatic factors, the second formal factors. The difference between the categories is that pragmatic factors can be overcome by paying a price, while the formal factors cannot (at least not in a lawful manner). An example of the pragmatic factors is time. Using an information system always requires the end user to spend time – the longer the time, the higher the costs. A typical example of formal factors is confidentiality. If a paper is confidential according to the law, an end user will not be able to access that paper, even if the end user is willing to pay for the privilege.

Many public libraries were established in the 19. century to make books more available, to reduce the costs of the end user. By adopting the principle of free access to books and the lending of books free of charge, information was made available at lower costs. The ideal of availability is still a priority for public libraries. But the information society has changed the situation in which books – and other carriers of data – are made available.

In some discussions of library policy, the principle of free lending of books has been elevated to an objective in itself. Obviously, this is false. Free lending is just one element in a strategy for making books more available, eliminating the availability factor of paying a price for accessing a book. As such, it is important and should not be underestimated. But it still is just one factor in the interplay determining the availability of the material in a library.

For instance, empirical research has demonstrated that the distance from the end user to the information systems is vital. A curious (and documented) example from the Norwegian tax administration is based on a handbook made available to each case officer. The case officers confirmed that the book was consulted in nearly every case. However, for budget reasons, the number of books purchased was halved. Those case officers having their own offices would have to share the book, which was placed on a shelf in the corridor just outside the office doors. After this change, the case officers no longer used the book – they reported that they would consult it when necessary, but that they had not missed the book for some time.

Other empirical studies have disclosed the same tendency: End users claim they will use a library when they need access to books, but they have not actually visited a library for a long time. The use of information systems is extremely sensitive to an increase in the pragmatic availability factors, and much more sensitive than the users report themselves. My students have popularised the findings to “the law of the outstretched arm” – what cannot be reached from where the user is sitting is not really available.

The results are disturbing, but they are consistent and have convinced me that pragmatic availability factors govern end user behaviour more strongly than we would like to think. In addition, libraries have to cope with formal availability factors, like closing hours or restrictions on reproduction by intellectual property law.

In this perspective, libraries are not – in relative terms – very available. The end user has to move, often quite some distance, to visit the physical library at a time when the library is open, has to cope with the indexing or search systems and the book has to be collected from the shelves somewhere. Compare this to what is available by stretching your hand towards the keyboard: Any text or other materials which have been computerised are available directly to your screen, and may be printed out or – even better – downloaded to an eBook of your choice in a specified open document standard.

Currently, whole collections of conventional books are converted into machine-readable form, and we can expect to realise the dream of actually having the national library on-line. In this respect the Nordic countries are fortunate, as legislation has been enacted making it possible to blanketlicense protected material. Obviously, it is exciting to consider that a child in a small school on the Norwegian west coast has similar access to all the books in the National Library as the scholar working at a university in the capital – literary at his or her fingertips.

But how will this change the infrastructure of libraries and the traditional‘book industries’? Will there still be a market for new editions of old books? Will there be a need for library branches, when more books than a small library is able to store are available at any time on the screen of the end user? How will the principle of free – i.e. gratis – use of literature be interpreted in this situation? Even if a user were to pay a royalty for downloading a book, the price would probably not make the book less available than today. The availability factors of travel time and opening hours would be replaced by a payment, but would this difference result in the book being less available?

And what would be the need for library buildings? Authentic copies of the original books and other material would be safely stored in some vault, while the computerised copies would be available everywhere – and the storage does not require buildings, just a server. And even more important, what do we need libraries for – when it is no longer necessary to organise the books on the shelves and transport them to the users?

Some of us hope that this will be a renaissance for both libraries and librarians. Perhaps libraries will become meeting places for living persons and ideas, rather than (or in addition to) readers and books. And the librarians will guide us into the wealth of information available on the web – not only by personal advice, but by taking their tradition of meta-information into cyberspace and building virtual libraries of guidance and quality control around the vast volumes of material made available.

Jon Bing
Professor dr juris The Norwegian Research Center for
Computers and Law (NRCCL) The Faculty of Law,
University of Oslo AT

Translated by Eric Deverill

Professor dr juris The Norwegian Research Center for Computers and Law (NRCCL) The Faculty of Law, University of Oslo