The End Of The Library

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A simple link. That’s all it took to unleash a hailstorm of angry emails, messages, tweets, and comments. Why? I dared wonder if libraries will continue to exist in the future.

I mean, it’s not that crazy a notion, right? (If you’re a librarian, you’re not allowed to answer that.)

Last Monday, I linked to this piece by Art Brodsky for Wired from my blog. In it, he argues that beyond the recent hoopla around e-book pricing, the real problem with e-books is what they’re doing to libraries. That is, killing them.

As Brodsky notes:

Imagine walking into a library or bookstore and needing three or four pairs of different glasses to read different books manufactured to specific viewing equipment. Or buying a book and then having to arbitrarily destroy it after say, two weeks. That’s just nuts. But it’s the current situation we’re in with ebooks.

He’s referring to the fact that Amazon, Apple, Google, and others now have their own e-book stores which sell goods which only work on certain devices or within certain applications.

Also, while the economics of e-books at a library should theoretically be better (since there is no more physical product, and any replacements or new copies are just a download away), they’re actually far worse:

Take the example of J.K. Rowling’s pseudonymous book, Cuckoo’s Calling. For the physical book, libraries would pay $14.40 from book distributor Baker & Taylor — close to the consumer price of $15.49 from Barnes & Noble and of $15.19 from Amazon. But even though the ebook will cost consumers $6.50 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble, libraries would pay $78 (through library ebook distributors Overdrive and 3M) for the same thing. Somehow the “e” in ebooks changes the pricing game, and drastically. How else does one explain libraries paying a $0.79 to $1.09 difference for a physical book to paying a difference of $71.50 just because it’s the electronic version? It’s not like being digital makes a difference for when and how they can lend it out.

And so, with these things in mind, it’s hard not to imagine a future where the majority of libraries cease to exist — at least as we currently know them. Not only are they being rendered obsolete in a digital world, the economics make even less sense. One can easily envision libraries making their way to the forefront of any budget cut discussions.

I know this sucks. Libraries have been an invaluable part of human history, propagating our culture and knowledge over centuries. But recognizing the changing times and pointing out the obvious shouldn’t be considered blasphemy. It is what it is.

The internet has replaced the importance of libraries as a repository for knowledge. And digital distribution has replaced the role of a library as a central hub for obtaining the containers of such knowledge: books. And digital bits have replaced the need to cut down trees to make paper and waste ink to create those books. This is evolution, not devolution.

It’s hard for me to even remember the last time I was in a library. I was definitely in one this past summer in Europe — on a historical tour. Before that, I think it was when I was in college. But even then, ten years ago, the internet was replacing the need to go to a library. And now, with e-books, I’m guessing the main reason to go to a library on a college campus is simply because it’s a quiet place to study.

I do recall the last several times I went to a library in high school — it was to borrow some CDs. (Which may or may not have been subsequently ripped onto a computer…)

The point is, times have changed. And things continue to change with increasing speed. So where does that leave libraries?

Undoubtedly, some of the largest, most prestigious libraries will live on. But the people lurking in them may increasingly look like Gandalf in the bowels of Minas Tirith looking through the scrolls of Isildur.

Meanwhile, some other spaces currently known as libraries may live on as cultural and/or learning centers. Others like the notion of using libraries as some sort of newfangled technology demo pits. Tablets over here! 3D printers over here! One article even likened them to Apple Stores.

There is also the notion of libraries shifting their focus to go further up the stack, as it were, to help content creators earn a better living from their writing. Eli Neiburger of the Ann Arbor District Library has written extensively about this. (Multiple people dismayed by my original link, pointed me to Neiburger’s thoughts.)

But even Neiburger admits that this is likely only a possibility for niche and/or independent writers. The big name publishers and big ticket books are never going to go for this. And again, this may mean a future where libraries have less of a focus on actual books.

All of these prospects for the future of libraries sound nice on paper (figuratively, not literally, of course). But I’m also worried that some of us are kidding ourselves. These theoretical places are not libraries in the ways that any of us currently think of libraries.

That’s the thing: it seems that nearly everyone is actually in agreement that libraries, as we currently know them, are going away. But no one wants to admit it because calling for the end of libraries seems about as popular as the Dewey Decimal System.

It’s almost like some people want to interpret anyone talking about the end of libraries as talking about the end of learning — and, by extension, the end of civilization. The reality is that learning has evolved. It’s now easier than ever to look something up. And the connected world has far better access to basically infinitely more information than can be found in even the largest library — or all of them combined. This is all a good thing. A very good thing. Maybe the best thing in the history of our civilization. Yet we retain this romantic notion of libraries as cultural touchstones. Without them, we’re worried we’ll be lost and everything will fall apart.

So we’re coming up with all these other ways to try to keep these buildings open. Co-working spaces! Media labs. Art galleries? We’ll see. But it’s impossible to see a world where we keep libraries open simply to pretend they still serve a purpose for which they no longer serve.

I’m sorry I have to be the one to write this. I have nothing but fond memories of libraries from my youth. Of course, I also have fond memories of bookstores. And we all know how that has turned out…

[image: New Line Cinemas]