This morning, I read that "'the library, as a place, is dead.'" Enter the "bookless library," which is all pixels, all the time.
What kind of "bookless library" would satisfactorily replace a bound collection? What sort of obstacles would it face?
1. We'd need a full subscription to the final form of GoogleBooks, as well as to any other substantial collection of digitized books. If we can't check books out of the library, then we have to be able to read them on our own computers. That means that a single, on-site license wouldn't work--the library would have to splurge for unlimited offsite use.
2. That's a full subscription to everything. Yes, scientists now do much of their publishing online. Alas, books in the humanities primarily exist in the material world. This may come as a shock, but we can't expect students doing a research paper to cough up $ to Google (or Amazon, or whomever) every time they want to cite a source. In fact, we can't expect faculty to do that, either (because most of us don't make that kind of $). I imagine that this will cause all sorts of copyright havoc.
3. Google needs to fix its preview and snippet functions. According to the article linked above, we aren't going to "shelfwalk" anymore. And yet, given that Google's snippet view CONTINUES TO BE ONE OF THE MOST MIND-BOGGLINGLY, INFURIATINGLY, AND SUBLIMELY USELESS SEARCH FUNCTIONS IN THE KNOWN GALAXY, AND QUITE POSSIBLY THE UNKNOWN GALAXY AS WELL (INCLUDING REGIONS REACHABLE ONLY BY STABLE WORMHOLES), we still need to shelfwalk. Because we cannot tell what's in the book by using Google's search results. I'm still getting "snippets" that turn out to be blank margins. (Which, again, means that the library would have to splurge on a license that gives us full access to everything Google scans.)
4. Google needs to actually develop something that bears a vague passing resemblance to quality control. Recent weeks have turned up creased pages, blurring, pages scanned in the wrong order, missing pages, and, of course, the ever-present thumbs. If we're going to have bookless libraries, then perhaps we first need the substitutes to be, well, useful?
4. Are we assuming that all publishers will cheerfully release their books for electronic distribution? Er...are we? Where do we put the books that aren't digitized?
5. Got rare books? Never mind Google. Will libraries with substantial rare book collections agree to digitize them and make them readily available to its own users, let alone to the World At Large? Many older books cannot be digitized by sticking 'em flat on a scanner bed--the bindings are either too tight or too fragile to survive the process. What about manuscripts? I would expect that many special collections either won't be digitized or can't be digitized without considerable expense. Which means that libraries will still have books in them.
6. Where will all the books go? Are we assuming that everybody will just stow their collections offsite (because all universities can afford to shell out the cash to store a few hundred thousand...or a few million...books somewhere else, in the right physical and climate conditions), or that libraries will have fire sales to raise money to buy databases? (Hey, I'm always willing to acquire a few texts...)
7. How are bibliographers to do their work? For any serious bibliographer, scanned copies will be useless: it's difficult (or impossible) to see watermarks, illustrations often reproduce poorly, the book's material aspects (bindings, etc.) will be obscured, and so forth. (ETA: Forgot to mention Thomas Freeman's "Texts, Lies and Microfilm," Sixteenth Century Journal 30 : 23-46; obviously, Freeman is talking about the problems of working with microfilm, but several of his observations carry over to digital texts.)
I'm sure my readers can think of many other issues.
ETA: Pace Steve Bell, putting my mildly sardonic reaction to the "bookless library" proposition aside, this post has absolutely nothing to do with Suzanne Thorin, and everything to do with baseline practical issues when it comes to electronic texts--especially those issues facing smaller libraries like mine, which do not have the money to buy all the good electronic stuff.