On The New Republic, David Bell takes a five-page look at some of the implications e-books have for the future of libraries. In light of the New York Public Library’s ongoing plan to move many of its books away from its main branch into offsite storage with 24-hour advance request required, Bell wonders to what extent libraries really need to keep books around anymore, and what the changing role of the library might mean in years to come.

One thing Bell points out is that millions of public-domain book titles are available through the auspices of organizations like Project Gutenberg and Google—more individual titles than many libraries have already. And while many Americans do not currently have access to the digital resources necessary to make use of them, the number is growing all the time and digital access might be ubiquitous in 20 or 30 years. Apart from reclaiming storage space in libraries to use for other things, switching to digital for the public domain would make access faster and reduce the workload on librarians to check titles out.

Some critics warn that digital media are more fragile than paper, and fear that as digital formats evolve, older files will become unreadable. These fears, too, are misplaced. Yes, digital media are fragile, but they are also far easier to duplicate than paper. The history of the Computer Age has been the history of exponentially more efficient digital storage capacity. In the mid-1950s, an early IBM hard drive stored 3.75 megabytes of data—roughly the amount now required to digitize a short book—in a cabinet that measured five feet by five feet eight inches by two feet, and weighed hundreds of pounds. Today the most advanced, commercially-available “secure digital” cards can store 500,000 times as much data in a package that measures 32 by 24 by 2.1 millimeters. Which is to say, a digital copy of the entire book collection of the Library of Congress—some thirty-three million volumes—can easily fit into a small shoebox, making it simple to produce thousands of backup digital copies of every book ever printed. As for format, the very existence of vast quantities of useful information encoded in particular formats makes backward compatibility a necessity, and guards against the danger of obsolescence. Internet browsers today can still read nearly every Web page ever created. Current versions of Microsoft Word can read Word files from the 1980s. Nearly all PDFs ever created remain readable in Adobe Acrobat and scores of competing programs.

Of course, in-copyright books are more problematic—about the only ongoing effort to digitize them all in a comprehensive way has been the Google Books initiative, which has been mired in court for years and probably will be for years to come. Publishers have not been entirely forthcoming with their own library e-book lending programs either. But Bell looks ahead to a day when those problems might be solved, and public libraries might face increasing pressure to reduce their size or even sell their facilities—which tend to occupy very desirable locations due to their historical importance—altogether.

Reducing the sizes and services available at libraries also amounts to reducing the available expertise of library staffers who have been able to help patrons with specific, sometimes obscure, research requests. But on the other hand, the rise of the Internet has brought with it entirely new sources of expertise, including ways of reaching out and contacting experts that would have been undreamed of twenty years ago. Bell thinks that this points the way for libraries to shift their emphasis toward provide ways that people can interact with those specialists and others physically rather than simply virtually.

Whatever they do, Bell notes, libraries will be in trouble if they don’t figure out ways to adapt to the new digital age. I would add that this is really something that could be said about any institution that depends so heavily on physical books—for example, publishers. Regardless, Bell has a lot more fascinating thoughts and insights than I can fit into this article, so check out the original for a fuller sense of what he’s saying.