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.