A common but essential piece of hardware that has been available to users in libraries for a long time is the copier. Wherever there has been information in print form there has been a copier to provide a way for that information to be duplicated and taken elsewhere. These devices are not inexpensive to purchase or operate, so there has typically been a per-copy charge to use them. The charge per copy is never much, but the total can grow to be cumulatively significant if a large number of copies are needed either all at once or on an ongoing basis.
We are now 16 years into the twenty-first century and flying cars are nowhere to be seen. The paperless society also seems to be an elusive dream, but perhaps it does not have to be quite as elusive. If you take away the printing components of a copier you are left with a scanner. Scanners are smaller, lighter, easier to build and maintain, and much less expensive to operate than copiers. There are fewer mechanical parts to break and there are no paper paths to jam and take the device out of service. They use electricity, but scanners are better for the environment because they do not use toner or paper. Best of all, scanners are affordable enough that in most cases, it is practical to offer their use for free in libraries.
That paper copies are still preferred by some and are even necessary or required at times is without question, but many people, and I suspect a growing number of people, in fact, prefer and find it more practical to have information in electronic form instead of on paper. The ideal solution, therefore, would be to provide library users with both traditional paper copiers as well as scanners. That would provide the greatest number of options for the greatest number of people at all times. Unfortunately, most libraries have limited resources, particularly when it comes to money for buying equipment and the space within which to locate it. For the majority of libraries, doing both will simply not be practical.
How then, to choose between the two options? The safe and easy answer is to stay with traditional paper copiers as they have always been the norm and people are comfortable with them, but I think serious consideration should be given to the scanner option. Libraries should focus on providing information without worrying too much about the particular form it comes in as long as it is not something esoteric and difficult for the average library user to deal with. How information is packaged and transmitted will continuously change and there will always be advantages and disadvantages to the various forms it can take. Ultimately, users know best what final form the information they receive from a library needs to be in, whether that turns out to be printed on paper, transformed from one electronic file format into another, or the original electronic form in which it was received. Leaving it up to the users to decide, especially now that it is possible to offer them options, is always going to be better than restricting them to a single choice.