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Will Public Libraries Exist in 50 Years?

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Will Public Libraries Exist in 50 Years?

Will public libraries exist in the next half-century?

To begin to answer that, let’s think about a similar question: “Will people still be watching TV in 50 years?” That answer seems quite simple:

Yes. And no.

For me, the idea of “watching TV” conjures up distinct images, one of which consists of sitting on the couch, bored to tears, while flipping through hundreds of unwanted channels. Not that I didn’t enjoy some shows, but I rarely got what I perceived to be “my money’s worth” — or better yet, what I really wanted.

Now, the idea of TV is changing. “Programmed television shows” are evolving into “video content.” We’re no longer completely required to pay for channels and shows we’ll never watch. Choices abound.

If you specifically asked, “Will we still be viewing scripted video on screens in 50 years?” My answer would be Yes. Will the experience look anything like its long-dead-cousin? No. And the most likely reason for that is, again:

CHOICE.

In much the same way as the thinking about television, whether or not libraries are relevant, or even exist, in the future will likely come down to how they deal with consumer choice.

The Changing Needs of Communities

During grade school, many of my projects followed a parallel track that looked something like this:

  1. Receive a riveting assignment - for instance, a book report on Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe or a report on the Cape Verde Islands (I specifically remember both of these).
  2. Immediately forget the assignment until the last possible minute.
  3. Run to the library the day before the due date and grab as many books as I could to complete the assignment.

When my father installed our first dial-up connection and I learned what “AOL” meant, needing to run to the library the day before was immediately replaced with waiting to log on the night before.

Until the Internet entered my life, I was entirely limited in my options. Either my family had a book or an encyclopedia that I could use - which was highly unlikely - or I went to the library. That was it.

Things are much different now. People are bombarded with such a plethora of choices that many are spending a substantial amount of their free time on choosing what to choose.

In an original article by David Rothman of LibraryCity.org, he highlights views from publishing pundit Mike Shatzkin who says that libraries make no sense in the future and from Forbes contributor Tim Worstall who thinks that we’d be better off closing libraries and buying everyone Kindle Unlimited subscriptions. But what both viewpoints are directly referring to, and what they fail to properly highlight, is the context of the “book” when it comes to the future of libraries.

How much merit would we put in someone today, if their opinion just a few years ago was to close libraries and give everyone a stipend for Border’s bookstore? Seems ridiculous. And, although I hardly believe Border’s = Amazon, the comparison is just.

Libraries, in my sole opinion, are meant to be community repositories of lasting information and ongoing learning. And as the needs and choices of communities shift and evolve, so too must the way libraries operate. But the goal of the library should remain the same, regardless of how they achieve it.

“But the Internet is an infinite repository of all things. Who needs libraries?”

The key is in the word community.

The continental United States is a vast body of land. At the macro level, the needs of those in Alexandria, VA, might be similar to those in San Antonio, TX, but at the individual level, the people and the communities could vary wildly. Demographics will differ. So will incomes, education levels and job prospects. And each of these differences calls for someone who is familiar with, and can operate within, the community they serve. If this can’t happen, then libraries will never thrive.

In the very near future, libraries can and should explore becoming the community hub for things such as entrepreneurial learning, computer science education, 3D printing, the “Maker Movement,” crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, among many others. Some libraries are already doing this. Librarians have always been highly skilled at pointing people in the right direction when it comes to their educational needs. Their role doesn’t need to be diminished, but expanded upon with no reason for libraries to give up their traditional roles as distributors and promoters of content. People will always have choices on where to learn new information, but if the path of least resistance is through their local library, that choice becomes easier.

This may be even more important in lower income areas. Smartphones are nearly ubiquitous, but for creating certain kinds of content, they are no substitute for desktops. Libraries can fill that gap. And, for some, libraries may be the only opportunity to gain access to and interact with sophisticated multimedia and other “enhanced” technologies that will become more and more relevant in the coming years.

Here in San Antonio, where eBooksAreForever is based, the biotech/biomed industry is large and growing quickly. A community center that aims to highlight areas like this to high-school and college aged members could serve to both produce educated local community members in technical fields and increase the growth rate of local industries, providing a perpetual win-win for the area.

But ongoing learning is only half of the equation. The other is being a repository for lasting information. Unfortunately, this is the area I believe requires the biggest shift in thought if libraries are going to have a long and healthy future.

Digital Licensing Harms Library Budgets

It seems to me there’s one GIANT flaw in the current iteration of digital libraries: Publishers enjoy far too much control over content and, especially at the top, have done little to help ensure that libraries can afford ebooks and digital versions.

So many of the issues that we face in the tech world are based on the fact that we try to apply physical rules to digital objects; libraries aren’t immune to this problem. When publishers were faced with the advent of ebooks, instead of trying to come up with viable models that worked, they applied the same structures that they used for print. Some say they deliberately crimped libraries. Often that meant loans to one patron at a time, just like a physical book. But it gets worse when you consider the absurdly high prices, time-limited licenses, “digital decay,” holds and other limits on simultaneous users.

Just one example of the perils of this approach for America’s libraries is that a library must pay for extension of time-limited licenses of old ebooks and purchases of licenses for new ones. All kinds of sustainability and predictability issues arise. And that’s true even if the budget remains the same, rather than declining, as many have in recent years. It will be harder than ever for libraries to grow their collection, whether the licenses are time-limited or come with limits on the number of times a library can loan a book.

Now consider a better alternative. If libraries could purchase ebooks at a fair price, “own” those ebooks - with no recurring licenses. Ebook acquisitions would be far, far more sustainable.

In the same article by David Rothman, he brings up that books still seem to be the major draw of at least his own local library. Potentially, the same could be true for a majority of libraries. I wonder what percentage of those people surveyed would consider an ebook to be a “book” in the sense of circulation.

This seems important because most patrons don’t realize that popular new releases from major publishers in digital ebooks usually cost the library a disproportionately large amount, relative to the same book in physical form. And yet, a lot of the librarians I’ve talked to stress that they only want to spend their budget on titles patrons want. (Which I wouldn’t argue against - as a rule, libraries probably shouldn’t purchase content their patrons don’t want.)

But when you take away the benefit to the library in cost, and the ebooks are on a yearly license, and the patrons still have to wait in long hold lines for the digital version, it’s hard to imagine** why libraries spend such a large amount on these new titles.

The cost seems to greatly outweigh the benefit to both the patron and the library. The library would be better served to stock up on more competitively priced ebooks, and then buy a few physical copies of popular new releases, as this is usually cheaper than purchasing new releases in digital format.

(**The obvious argument here is that bestsellers are staples for libraries in both digital and print, and local taxpayers favoring popular ebooks may not appreciate having to mess with print if it’s against their desires. It’s an argument that can’t be ignored, and shows that the problem must be attacked from multiple angles.)

Where libraries and patrons alike can instantly benefit is from the power in the almighty mid-list. We should all want to see more small-press books and literary fiction in general in libraries, along with first-rate nonfiction that may not be popular despite its merits. The idea of libraries working to nudge patrons from bestsellers to other, often-better books, is an appealing one.

Efforts need to continue to bolster the power of the non-extreme-bestsellers - something we believe in and which we’re actively engaged in here at eBooksAreForever - as these mid-list titles could serve as an excellent base to a sustainable ebook catalog.

But similar attention will eventually have to be focused on those small groups at the top.

Ultimately, if libraries are to survive and thrive well into the future, we’ll need multiple solutions working in harmony.


What are your thoughts? What are some of the other things libraries could be doing to help with community changes and budgetary constraints? Leave a comment to let us know what you think.


Thanks to David Rothman for his valued insight. Read more from him at LibraryCity.org.