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American libraries – latest developments

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The virtual library

Mentioning technological developments in libraries is like thanking people after an event – there are too many to name individually. Fortunately, in the former case it is possible to talk about trends, with a few individual examples.

Paying attention to collaboration

Asked to name one innovation which really stands out, be it the built environment, technology or a service, Molly Raphael mentions technology that enables collaboration across institutions.

Libraries of all types are incorporating into their meeting spaces equipment that allows for webcasting. This means that people can participate in meetings without having to physically attend.

That can be particularly important in communities which are widespread, for instance in a county that covers over 1,000 square miles, many people can't easily get to events.

Academic libraries also routinely allow for this type of collaboration, so that a session or a meeting can be broadcast out to another campus that may be, say, 50 miles away.

Investing in the website

American public library websites tend to be about experiences, using bold images and design, as well as a whole range of social and rich media, to promote their services and invite customer input.

Famous examples include Darien, New York Public Library, and Ann Arbor. The latter is is blog-based, thus allowing for easy addition of events to make it look up to the minute.

Screenshot of Ann Arbor website.

Screenshot of Ann Arbor website

Libraries invest a lot in their websites, according to Molly Raphael, and use them to send out rich media in the form of podcasts and webcasts, as well as inviting users to upload their own content.

Books, e-books and scholarly communication

Books are at least a couple of millennia old; they have just changed media a couple of times (manuscript to print, print to electronic).

E-books constitute only a small percentage of library holdings yet they are the fastest growing media sector. They are commonest in academic libraries – 94 per cent use them, as compared with 72 per cent of public libraries and 33 per cent of school libraries (American Library Association, 2011).

E-books are generally books which have been produced in both electronic and print form, or were "born digital". Another trend is for digitization of the library's print collection, which can then be shared with other libraries.

The University of Michigan Library (MLibrary) began digitizing its collection in 1994. It was the first library to sign an agreement with Google, one of the provisions of which was that digital copies of books be shared with other libraries.

This became the foundation for HathiTrust Digital Library (, based on a collaborative partnership with more than 60 libraries, which has also resulted in joint research on and implementation of a full-text search.

However, the printed book is not at an end, and comes up in a novel form in the trend towards printing on demand. MLibrary has its own Espresso Book Printer – see

MLibrary is in fact an example of a library becoming the hub of scholarly publishing: MPublishing was created in 2009, with a mission to work with authors, editors, researchers and consumers to meet their needs, and to find appropriate economic models and use of technology.

It incorporates the scholarly publishing office and the University of Michigan Press, both of which are part of the library.


Technology can also be used to speed up transactions and automate the mundane jobs of checking in and checking out. RFID is used in Darien (Connecticut) Library for the purposes of self-checking, which means that a circulation desk is no longer needed.

Marquette University Law Library in Milwaukee integrates book and building security at the library's entrance.


The above is a very incomplete snapshot of the best of America's libraries, showing, however, that they combine innovation with customer service, and make a contribution towards economic well-being.

Above all, America's libraries are a powerful demonstration of the best of America's democratic values: a service that provides what its users want and which its users, in turn, are prepared to fight for.


Emerald would like to thank Jud Haggard Photography, LaCresha Kolba and Lara Swimmer for their kind permission to allow us to reproduce their photographs.

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