Sep 1, 2022

Library Closures: Perhaps there is a Solution?

WARNING: This article contains personal opinions.

One sad fact is that many genealogy libraries are closing. The closure of any library is always sad news, of course. However, I also see a solution and perhaps even a ray of sunshine in such announcements.

Most libraries close simply because of financial difficulties. It costs a lot of money for buildings, heat, air conditioning, electricity, and employees’ salaries. Oh yes, there is also a major expense for books and other materials that are the primary purpose of a library.

Smaller libraries typically serve a limited number of patrons: only those who live somewhere near the library and can use the library’s facilities without spending a lot of time and money in travel, hotel rooms, restaurants, and more in order to use the facility. When it comes to attract visitors to a library, geography is perhaps the biggest impediment of all.

In contrast, let’s consider online libraries.

Scanning all the books and taking digital photographs of other items in a library costs money for the labor and scanners. (High-end scanners are often rented, not purchased.) However, those expenses usually are paid back once the library closes and stops paying for the building, heat, air conditioning, and electricity. The savings typically outweigh the earlier expenses.

Admittedly, even an online library has to pay for web servers, employees to keep the servers running, other employees to run the library and continue to add new material to the holdings, administrative expenses, and more. However, these new expenses usually are much lower than the cost of running a physical library.

The second advantage of an online library is undoubtedly the biggest: patrons are able to “attend” and use the library’s materials regardless of location. The closed library no longer is restricted to serving patrons who live within a limited distance. Most of the online libraries serve would-wide users.

I well remember the FamilySearch Library’s decision some years ago to digitize. (That Library also remains open and available to walk-in visitors in Salt Lake City.)

The senior management of the FamilySearch Library had been considering digitizing the library’s holdings for some time. There were many issues to be considered, but one relevant to this discussion was the thought “if we place everything online, nobody will come to visit in person anymore.”

You probably know the rest of the story. Management launched a huge digitization effort. The effort has consumed years and is still ongoing. Usage of the library mushroomed! Instead of serving thousands of people every year, the FamilySearch Library almost immediately was serving millions, both online and in person..

As to in-person visitors, the Family History Library now has many more in-person visitors than ever before in history. In short, that library is now more popular than ever before, both in-person and online. I believe there are multiple reasons for that success but obviously the online access to the library’s holding was never an impediment.

Will smaller libraries have the same success? Will a small library become an instant success when going online? I don’t know the answer to those questions. Indeed, there are many factors involved. However, I know that I frequently access online libraries that are thousands of miles from my home. You can do the same, if that library’s holdings are available online.

I also realize that handling a printed book, especially an older volume, is somewhat emotionally satisfying. You can never appreciate the smell and feel of a digital image of an old book. However, I would consider that to be a minor drawback when accessing distant books and other material of interest that have been housed in a distant library.

And, yes, I will pay a few dollars for access to a library that is available across the country or even across the world, instead of paying travel expenses for an in-person visit.

Converting to an online library or perhaps to a combined online and in-person facility involves many decisions, none of them simple. Indeed, there will still be financial issues: will patrons pay a modest fee to remotely access a library’s facilities? Can modern books still under copyright be made available? (Yes, all major city libraries already do that. Ask any librarian.)

In short, perhaps everyone should see challenges as opportunities. In the 21st century, libraries do not have to be large, physical buildings.

What is more important: housing physical books or satisfying the needs and desires of worldwide patrons?

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