Walrus image from NYPL Picture CollectionDo we face a future in which libraries are obsolete, in which people go instead to Google when they need any and all information? No, says Anthony Grafton in “Future Reading,” an article available at the New Yorker‘s Web site. He points to the complexity of all the competing projects – most notably Google’s, but also Microsoft’s and Amazon’s – to scan and make available online the contents of all the out-of-copyright books on earth. That complexity makes certain that we’ll need libraries to visit for a long while.

Grafton’s article is tuned to the needs and wants of adult scholars. But his message also applies to young people who, each following his or her passion for, say, pre-World-War-II animation, Civil War armaments, walruses (as in the picture), or pterodactyls, wants to find everything on the subject. With so many more materials coming on line that used to be found only in the dusty tomes of a few large libraries, anyone with a passion will be able to find more fuel than ever for that passion.

But it’s also complicated, because with so many companies and databases expecting to make as much money as possible however they can from everything they scan, we may end up with an online muddle of reading material. Grafton says:

The supposed universal library, then, will be not a seamless mass of books, easily linked and studied together, but a patchwork of interfaces and databases, some open to anyone with a computer and WiFi, others closed to those without access or money. The real challenge now is how to chart the tectonic plates of information that are crashing into one another and then to learn to navigate the new landscapes they are creating. Over time, as more of this material emerges from copyright protection, we’ll be able to learn things about our culture that we could never have known previously. Soon, the present will become overwhelmingly accessible, but a great deal of older material may never coalesce into a single database.

And that’s where the library, as the house of 3-D books and periodicals, remains useful – as a place that will still give lovers of the printed word and image a place to stumble serendipitously over those things that will remain un-Google-able.

This article isn’t a casual read, but for anyone who loves books and speculates about their future, it’s fascinating. It certainly made me wonder how young people of the next generation will use libraries.

(The illustration comes from The New York Public Library’s Picture Collection, which is a useful and entertaining resource full of out-of-copyright images.)