Libraries used to be physical places with bricks and books, but they are increasingly virtualized collections of digital content having no fixed location.
Many people already access audio versions of books through their libraries. eBooks have been around for many years with a limited following, but thanks to new eBook readers such as the Amazon Kindle and Sony’s Reader Digital Book, downloading books from the Internet is increasingly common.
While still not as flexible and easy to use as a book, these devices point the way to future generations of electronic books. Since physical distribution uses expensive resources, and books can take up a lot of space, we expect in the next few years most people’s reading will be done using electronic devices. This will reduce the cost of book production and distribution and make written content less expensive and more useful.
Electronic books obtained through the Internet offer things that physical books cannot, such as instant search on words or phrases and electronic bookmarks. Quoting material from a written text is a lot easier when it can be done using cutting and pasting. Even books themselves will change, as electronic distribution and access reduce the barriers to writing and distributing writing. Blogs, Wikipedia, and other on-line writing forums are only the beginning of a trend creating a very long tail of written information and opinion on almost any topic that you can think of.
Based upon a Consumer Survey on Digital Storage in Consumer Electronics I published earlier this year, the typical home in 2013 will have over 200 Gbytes of user-generated content. With about 100 million households in the U.S., that translates to over 20 exabytes of user-generated content. By the next decade, there will be more user-generated unique content than commercial or government content; after all, there are many more individuals than companies and governments.
It's already started: Today many people share user-generated photographs, videos, and writing through social networking and sharing sites on the Internet.
One of the traditional functions of libraries has been to preserve knowledge and content. With the growth of individual user content and with so many ways to share it, future libraries must follow suit. Present efforts to preserve publicly accessible content on the Internet are mostly based on volunteer efforts, such as the Wayback machine at www.archive.org.
Tomorrow’s virtual libraries may look like this. They must incorporate and preserve commercial, government, and user-generated content and make this material accessible as well as organize it for individual use. As people become more dependent on electronic information sources, both their own content stored in their homes as well as content accessed over the Internet will need to be correlated and combined.
New uses of metadata (information about the data stored on a particular host or device) will enable this access and use of content. This electronic cornucopia of content, both commercial and personal, will enable whole new forms of entertainment, education, and even work.
— Tom Coughlin, President, Coughlin Associates