We all love the vision of the underprivileged kid bootstrapping himself out of poverty with books, but now (most of the time), the insight and leverage is going to come from being fast and smart with online resources, not from hiding in the stacks.

Seth Godin recently posted a (mostly sensible) post about the future of libraries, and on the whole, his assessment was reasonable, and well thought out.  However, one thing struck me, and I have quoted the sentence that concerned me above.  One thing I really love, as a library user, is the ability to take stuff home with me.  I don’t want to sit in a library looking at a computer, and I know how to find information.  I’m quite open to the idea of e-books (I don’t have a reader yet, but when I upgrade my phone…).  But right now, my best value item from the library is a language course.  I pay a small fee to hire a course in Swedish from the library.  It has all I need – tapes (yes, some of us still use those relics of the eighties), books and most importantly, I can use it in the places that suit me – my car and the staff room at work.  I know this could be done digitally, but…

1) I’d have to make sure my MP3 playing device was compatible with the library’s chosen system.  I then have to transfer all the data onto it, and because I like listening to lots of music too, I never have much disk space, so this needs doing every few days as I work through the lessons.

2) I’d have to download the books onto a device and hope the battery life, as I am a fan of an all-in-one type device such as a smart phone, is long enough to cope with both the reading and the listening.

3) I’ve not yet seen an e-reading piece of software that is actually nice to use for reference.  Linear reading, sure, but flipping backwards and forwards between the index, the grammar reference and the lesson notes?  Well, I don’t think e-books are really made for that yet.  Maybe one day, but I’d be impressed.  Essentially, e-book readers are limited by the fact they present one screen – it’s not unusual for me to read this type of book (and this goes for any book with a reference section) with my fingers between the pages, flicking back and forth.

I absolutely agree with Seth Godin about the quick reference, finding information side of his argument – that has been largely replaced by online information, which is easier and in many cases better that the print version.  But I am concerned that it misses some of the advantages of physical materials for more in depth learning – language learning being an obvious example.  Lifelong learning is not, as I see it, about how quickly you can find facts, but a much more flexible and enriching process.  Sometimes an online resource is the best place to access that learning, but I am not at all sure that it works for everything.  Certainly in the case of Swedish, I love being able to supplement the course with conversation – over the internet – with a friend.  But I think it’s this blend of resources, and the understanding professional librarians develop about appropriate formats, that makes libraries such valuable resources in the community.