Society / Technology

The Bookless Library

The traditional paper book is approaching the end of its nearly 600-year lifespan, soon to be usurped by its young electronic cousins.  This will impact our world in a variety of ways, but it’s hard to think of any institution with more at stake than your friendly neighborhood library.  Can it be saved?  Should it?   To answer these questions, let’s take a quick look at the trend, and then figure out exactly what we want out of libraries in the first place.

A World Without Books

The Kindle, the Nook and other digital book platforms have been surging in popularity since they were introduced to the market 4 years ago, and the trend shows no signs of slowing.  E-book revenues rose 170% the first quarter of this year, compared with 2010.  Meanwhile, traditional books declined by 25% over the same period.

It’s not hard to guess why.  By comparison, e-books are cheaper to produce, use almost no resources, can be downloaded immediately, and weigh nothing.  Who can compete with that?

Don’t misunderstand me – I love books.  I love the heady smell of fresh paper, and the feel of turning a crisp page.  I love browsing in bookstores, enticed by covers or surprised by randomly selected passages.  And I am especially fond of my home library, with its chaos of colorful bindings in every size and shape, stacked two rows deep and piled sideways on every shelf.  It’s a trove that would beggar a dragon’s hoard.

But given the advantages enjoyed by e-books, it’s awfully hard to argue that paper and glue are essential ingredients.  So I don’t think I’m alone in predicting a future wherein published volumes will be a specialty item for the connoisseur, and rarely used otherwise.  Compare the state of vinyl records today.

What are libraries for, anyway?

One possibility, as with every other institution swept up on a tide of change, is that libraries will simply become obsolete.  If the public, confronted with the dominance of e-reading, decides that libraries no longer serve a function, then no amount of hand-wringing by the faithful will be able to save them.  A few may live on, supported by specific communities, but their numbers will gradually dwindle, much as you see right now with video and music stores, the other two victims of the digital media age.

This is a disheartening thought, and not just because I like books so much.  The real problem is that libraries serve many functions beyond lending books.  They promote literacy and education, host community events, provide computing resources for residents, and offer a respite of cool silence amid the mad noisy world.  In short, libraries provide a generous dollop of the increasingly rare glue that holds communities together.

So what’s the alternative to losing them?  For libraries to swim with the current, of course.  Darwin famously observed that the survival of a species depends more on adaptability than brute strength or intelligence, and this holds true for institutions as well.  There’s evidence that libraries are taking this to heart: many are now doing e-lending on Kindle, and some are fighting back against e-book lending caps imposed by publishers.

This news, while welcome, is not sufficient to save the library as we know it.  In fact, I’d argue that transitioning to digital lending is hastening the disappearance of your local brick-and-mortar library.  After all, a weightless, size-less book doesn’t justify any shelf space.

Split the difference

So here’ s my proposal: Let’s radically redefine what we mean by “library,” and divide the venerable institution into two entirely different entities.  One would be an online repository of digital materials – the library’s collection, moved onto the internet.  From its website, you could log in with your library card, borrow digital novels, download podcasts and magazines, research your school paper, and even join a book-discussion forum.

The other entity would be the building where your library currently lives (or perhaps a slightly smaller one).  This would provide all the additional features of a library – meeting space, public internet, educational programming and other community resources, now named as explicit goals.  And I would argue that both should remain staffed by real people and taxpayer-funded.  The financial investment is minimal, and the return to the community is enormous.

So what do you think?  Is it worth saving the library, or should we just let it go?  Would the solution I’ve sketched be workable?  A penny for your thoughts.

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8 thoughts on “The Bookless Library

  1. Great solution, Scott.

    My most emotional response is that the digital-library-cum-community-space still leaves me mourning that quiet reflective space that libraries still provide. Maybe there’s not enough demand for it, but I will miss it.

    On a more practical level, I worry that any plan to get rid of the library space will leave a large number of the population underserved. You mentioned that libraries “provide computing resources for residents.” But if books end up all being digital, then residents will need access to Kindles, or whatever their popular counterpart will end up being. Will we have to use them at the library? Or will we be able to borrow such an expensive item from the library? (I know, I always renew my books at least once before I am ready to return them.) Maybe the innovators will come up with something less valuable that can be lent with less risk…but until then I hope that libraries remain open for all of us without a Kindle budget.

  2. Rebecca, Let’s remember not to use “Kindle” too literally. As things stand, most of the adult high volume library users may not have a dedicated e-reader, but they have some device (a computer, a smartphone, an iPad) that can replicate the purpose. As computing power (not just data space, but raw power) continues to grow, the price of that power drops (the average digital watch has more computing power than existed on the planet the year Scott and I were born). More importantly society adjusts in subtle ways around it (It will soon be more cost effective for elementary schools to issue “Kindles” not textbooks….many universities already do virtual textbooks) You and I can both remember when the mp3 was esoteric and strange, now all but the absolute poorest among us have that as our primary audio medium. I remain confident in the ability of the technology to be more than ready to step into the gap left by the loss of the stacks. Especially as no one expects paper books to vanish entirely quite yet…

    You will note, that I made the giant caveat there “adult” users. Most public libraries have a disproportionate (and growing) portion of the space dedicated to children, which makes sense as children (and their mothers-hence the large romance paperback sections) are disproportionate consumers of library time and space. This goes back more to your point about “community space” though. For a relatively bookish child, or even just a parent trying to raise a relatively bookish child, it’s hard to overstate the centrality of the library as not just a collection of books, but the equivalent of an old town commons. Much “ink” has been spilled about the effects of “living in the future” on traditional community bindings, but by and large adults have the freedom to create new communities of their own choosings (for better and worse). No such alternatives exist for children, a problem compounded by overscheduling, and frankly, having fewer children. The library played a role in creating the “children’s world” we inhabited that is increasingly endangered by the lack of “children’s space.”

    I think we can very much make Scott’s idea about shared adult space come to pass. In fact I think we won’t be able to avoid making it come to pass; the post-industrial state, when we finally get it, will be physically smaller and more virtual than the clunker we’re driving these days. When that happens we’ll have lots of space-not just libraries- freed up for alternate use by the common weal. Even if we sell half of it off, we will have lots of space to really rethink what a Commons should be for and look like in the 3rd Millennium. It’s a conversation I’m eager to have.

  3. Andre, I love your point about making sure we create a children’s space along with our community space.

    You haven’t convinced me that there will be easy access of information to everyone once libraries go digital. It’s great to hear that schools are giving students Kindles. (Of course, when I say “Kindle” I’m refering to the whole concept, as someone says “Bandaid” when they mean adhesive bandages). Those kids will have easy access to library information. But what about kids who live in districts that can’t afford Kindles?

    You talk about how prolific the mp3 is, and I mostly agree…mostly… But I am reminded of my teenage friend – the 4th child of 5 in a lower-middle class family. She doesn’t own a mp3 player. She still uses a discman, and she’s ridiculed for it by her peers.

    For a few decades there will still be many families who cannot make e-readers a priority purchase, even if it means that their children can’t use digital books from the library. This is why I’m anxious to see that libraries figure out a way to serve these people before they make the switch.

    • Oh, I agree that we’re not there with electronic media devices…yet. But we will get there. And there will be some nonzero number of people who will get squished in the transition. While we should minimize the number of people that happens to, the complete elimination of adverse results is a counter-productive policy goal. (in fact, our inability to admit that almost any change affects someone negatively is one of our biggest public-policy blindspots.)

      But fundamentally, it doesn’t matter. The e-book era WILL come, and it will come in a period of times measured in years, not decades (last year Amazon sold more e-books than books). We can manage that process successfully or try to stop the wave and drown in it.

  4. My 2 cents? As a public librarian,Public libraries, at least, aren’t going anywhere. Every time there is a shift in technology there is talk about the obsolescence of libraries, but we’re still here, and we’re still being used heavily. Partially because libraries are pretty quick to adapt, partially because we offer more than just books (and we do offer ebooks – or most libraries do anyway). There are still tons of people who use “traditional” books, which is why the shelves of my library frequently look bare. Not because we don’t own a ridiculous amount of books, but because they are constantly being used. But we also give people context. We offer storytimes, and science programs, documentaries, crafts, internet access to the many who don’t have access from home. So there is more to libraries than just books.

  5. I am not even sure that paper books will disappear as digital reading sources (e-books) expand. Lots of people still read in print. And love it!!!

    Like other contributors to this thread, I see libraries as community “commons” where people will continue to come to find resources they need when there is something they want to learn, a place where they can be with other people, when they want to interact with a friendly person (library staff), when they need professional assistance, programs, events, and access to a large range of resources regardless of economics. I don’t think that the need for this will disappear as digital formats increase.

  6. Libraries are not synonymous with print media. Libraries are more innovative than ever, often taking the lead with new technologies and ideas like 3D printing and gamification, following a similar model to hackerspaces.

    I, too, love and cherish my books and print media. Heck, I work for a newspaper. But I support digital media because I think it makes it more accessible as technology becomes more accessible, and it’s less wasteful because we can easily update texts and ensure that factual and up-to-date information is what people are consuming. I also value the content of books more than I care about the medium of books themselves. For instance, having a hundred books available to me at any time is much more awesome for me as a reader than having one pretty book that I treat as sacred. That being said, I have typewriters, newspapers and books all over my house, so I think there’s a happy medium. :)

  7. Thanks for your input, everyone. I agree with those of you who suggest that access will be a key factor in how beneficial the digital age will really be. Also that libraries have a clear place in our communities, books or no. And finally, I’m heartened by those of you who think the world may yet have room for physical books!

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