Soon print books will only be found for sale in the physical world in Walmart, Target, grocery stores, airport newsstands, a smattering of independent bookstores and libraries. As the physical tangibility of books goes the way of music, I fear this will doom public libraries.
I love libraries, whether they are university, public, personal or school. There’s nothing like wandering up and down the stacks, buoyed by the possibility of discovery, surrounded by wisdom, knowledge and amazing stories… and the people who love them. However, despite Seth Godin’s eager, romantic, almost desperate justification for public libraries continuing to exist in an e-book world, I fear that they are headed the way of the street trolley.
Why? Well, for one, they may not be able to get e-books to lend if publishers prevent it. Publishers can drive libraries right out of business to pump up their e-book sales, like the car companies did when they bought up street trolleys, shut them down and blocked other mass transit initiatives to remove alternatives to their products.
But let’s assume that publishers, staffed by book lovers and library fans, go the extra mile to allow libraries to join the e-book revolution. What is a library without books (or other tangible media)? Is it a building filled with computers, or e-readers to loan? How much space is needed for that? Certainly not the square footage that public libraries have now. Unless you want to go the internet cafe route:
Providing a public space for free internet, where ‘packs’ of teens can hang out and ’cause trouble?’ An unlikely proposition, although I think it would be a great idea because teens need places to hang out. But does this make it taxpayer-supported Napster, a competitor to Amazon, Barnes and Noble and Best Buy? I don’t think libraries survive if they go that route.
What about preserving libraries for children, you ask? A good point, as children’s books may never go digital, as this New York Times article points out. There is a tactile experience with picture books and early readers that will likely not transfer digitally. Oh good, then we can keep our public libraries, but mainly loaded with cardboard books and Clifford, the Big Red Dog, right?
I doubt it. Public schools have books covered for the age 5-18 set. Do we need a physical public library infrastructure for preschoolers? Will we pay for that in a Teardown America where teachers are laid off, bridges crumble and most of our tax dollars go to health care? Or could we downsize it to a single kids’ story-time room in a community center, with the books crammed in shelves running around the room?
Instead of a physical building, libraries could ride the e-book wave and evolve into kiosks that spit out a recyclable reader if you don’t have your own to download content. Public service accomplished without the heating bills? If a citizen wants help, then some Siri-esque search engine will do fine, right? A Redbox for books. Heck, does it even need to be publicly-provided, or will Amazon do this itself?
And yet, in the science fiction thriller I’m shopping around, set in the far future, a large public library features prominently. It sports e-readers, study spaces and university-level academic resources. But its central reason for existence: it’s in a high-rise with entrepreneurs and business incubators, and serves as a meeting place for innovators and thinkers.
That kind of meatspace-based mission is what libraries need to survive. If the content doesn’t need much square footage, the people who meet there do, to gain and exchange knowledge, entertainment and enlightenment from one another. The importance of physical geography to communication and idea exchange is something that Google has realized in its own organization. The teaching, interacting, exchanging and congregating that happens in public libraries now won’t be replaced by the e-book revolution, and it could be the basis of libraries’ new focus during that revolution. But public libraries need to leap to this new mission, or find a better one, while they are still valued as print book repositories. If they wait until people start questioning whether they are still worth tax dollars, it will be too late.