One of the harbingers of how fruitful the continued marriage of technology and research can better serve the future is found in the status of the New York Public Library’s position on electronically borrowing books. One can head off to the NYPL eBooks online library and actually check out books by downloading them to your home computer.

These downloaded books are “time bombed” to expire at the end of three weeks so instead of taking the book back to the library you just let the book expire on your hard drive. There are certainly sticky copyright issues that must continue to be dealt with in the internet “borrow but don’t return” lending scheme for libraries; but for those who understand eBooks are good for authors and publishers and libraries the concern over digital rights borrowing can be resolved in the greater favor of the consumer.

Publishers will rent individual licenses for their books that will expire the same way a parking space expires after you purchase its limited use for a quarter. eBooks, for libraries everywhere, means they can finally sustain a relationship with their patrons beyond the walls of their libraries.

Libraries no longer need to worry about losing books that never get returned. Libraries no longer have to process late fees. eBooks will one day overtake paper books in the same way papyrus overtook hieroglyphs on cave walls for storytelling and communication. All libraries will one day simply be websites for virtual visitation. The brick-and-mortar buildings cost money to keep up and if the idea of having the most books available for most people is the mission of every library, then a traditional library will always have the problem of trying to find more space for hardcover books.

The danger of going wholly virtual is that big public libraries like the New York Public Library — and private libraries like NYU and Columbia and Harvard –want patrons who will pay for access to their special collections (you can already gain reading privileges at those private libraries in person by paying a yearly access fee). Private libraries will surge online because of money and prestige and power while the hometown libraries wither into irrelevance.

The task of the local library is to provide digital content that can only be found via their portal. That means providing irreplaceable and relevant local information that is paramount to successfully finding sustenance in the city. The New York Public Library’s eBooks program is started on the right path.

There are not many books available yet but their list of titles for check-out should be growing by the day. If you find a book you want but it has already been “checked out” you can have the system email you when the book is “returned” so you can go download the title. There is a 72 hour window for picking up your book from the virtual “reserve” shelf but that time limit for response is reasonable because books on a shelf — even a virtual one — are books that are not being examined and should be returned to the public for picking.

The next big wave will be Virtual Textbooks you rent for a semester and then they dissolve before your eyes unless you pay another fee to keep the book active.

For those of us who consider books our friends that will be a sad loss; though those who will be really crying are the hardbound bookstores. In order for those bookstores to survive they will have to demand exclusivity agreements where the digital keys to unlock the books can only be purchased through a university or another entity that controls consumer spending and then used on their site to download the books from the ether.


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