Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Will libraries die?

Note: The opinions in this post are mine alone, and contain generalizations about libraries from a non-librarian. Abby (a librarian) and John (not) probably don't share them. And I might not agree with them tomorrow. Go easy on me.

Every profession has its party question--the one strangers ask when they find out what you do. Doctors get "What about those insurance companies?" My wife, a novelist, gets "Are you published?"* My question is "Are books going to die? Are libraries going to die?"

Meh. I'm not too afraid. I don't see the perfect ebook arriving any time soon, and all the the book lovers and libraries hauling their collections to the dumpster. A thousand interesting, transformative things are happening to books and to libraries, but death-by-ebook seems very far off.

But then it hit me. To me, libraries are about books. But libraries today are about much more, with CDs and DVDs high on the list**. Those media ARE dying, being replaced by digital downloads. In my own life, I've almost stopped buying CDs, and recently my wife and I have seriosuly cut back on DVD rentals. We get both on iTunes now.***

I'm not taking every to the dumpster yet, but CD and DVD racks no longer have a central place in our living room. This stuff is on the way out. Technological adoption, habit and the fact that library borrowing is free will slow things down, but the trend is clear. Books are better than ebooks, even if you have to go to the library to get them. CDs and DVDs aren't.

So, let's all stop imagining a library without books, and imagine a library without CDs and DVDs. Let's imagine a library with books, and hope for one with more of them. Maybe it's just me, but I'm excited by that prospect.

*She is. Both she and my friend Kevin Shay have discovered another common question. When people hear they write novels, an amazing number of people are moved to ask "fiction?"
**Also internet access and serials. To keep this post short, I won't get into them, although I think both are on the same downward escalator as CDs and DVDs.
***We watch on my laptop. We don't own a TV. I know, smell us.


Blogger fleela said...

I recently took my ten year old son to our local library (which won the Indiana Library of the Year Award) and was shocked to find the rows of shelves empty. Not of books, but devoid of people. All the patrons I could see were standing in front of glowing terminals, perhaps perusing the library's catalog, but I suspect not.

The child and I wandered around the shelves, never having to move out of the way of anyone. To be honest, it was creepy. And lonely, really.

3/28/2007 12:44 PM  
Anonymous yoko said...

There are many libraries that make available their subscriptions to streaming and downloadable music sources such as, and Alexander Street Press.

Many serials are also available online, so they haven't gone away either.*

Libraries spend a significant amount of time and money getting licensing for these. CDs and DVDs aren't going to be completely gone, or not otherwise replaced with other media forms.

*Yeah, I know, you didn't want to go there, but getting online subscriptions for serials works in much the same way as for databases, even those for music, so I mention it.

3/28/2007 12:49 PM  
Blogger E. R. Dunhill said...

I agree on the hardcopy book. I don’t see the ebook supplanting bound pages any time soon. There were people who asserted that microfilm/fiche would replace most applications of the book. The technology of the book is portable and idiotically simple.
As for other media, I think libraries would do well to explore this challenge. For some applications, libraries could maintain their own digital collections of protected content for on-site use. Something akin to undergrads going to the library to listen to some obscure Bartók sonatina for a music history paper. Add to this broader availability of content in the public domain. Until it was summarily hacked, the library could also “check out” a fixed number of media streams to remote library patrons who would view or listen over their local library media software. When they were done watching or listening, someone else could check out the stream.
There remains huge potential in publicly owned media. Libraries just have to be creative, at least more so than I have been here.


3/28/2007 12:53 PM  
Blogger john said...

I agree, with some caveats. CDs and DVDs are on the out, without question, and sooner rather than later -- online is simply better.

As for books, I think they'll share the same fate, but we're talking decades, not years, before it happens. The limiting factor to eBook adoption isn't computing power, it's display technology. Which is improving, but not nearly as fast as chips are -- the price/power curve for displays doesn't follow Moore's Law.

But withing the next 10, 20, 30 years, I think it's inevitable that the train scene from "Minority Report" will become a reality--everyone reading from instantly-updatable ePaper. When we transition to that, traditional books won't disappear, but they'll join vinyl records and poetry in the category of things with passionate devotees, and declining mainstream import.

Which doesn't bother me so much. The meat of a book is the intangible stuff inside, not the wrapper. And just because a better day-to-day vehicle might come along, it doesn't mean we can't continue enjoying the musty paper we've accumulated. In my dottage my walls will still be lined with books and LPs.

3/28/2007 2:07 PM  
Blogger Walt said...

Some will, some won't. Come to think of it, many branches have already been closed and some systems are likely to shut down soon. However, others are thriving (okay, maybe not thriving, but surviving in a range from barely to nicely)

3/28/2007 2:21 PM  
Blogger amancine said...

>>So, let's all stop imagining a library without books, and imagine a library without CDs and DVDs. Let's imagine a library with books, and hope for one with more of them. Maybe it's just me, but I'm excited by that prospect.<<

This describes my dream library. The library of my childhood, perhaps. A library with BOOKS in it. Maybe in the spirit of the old pendulum swinging in the other direction, we can get back to that.

3/28/2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Joshua M. Neff said...

The limiting factor to eBook adoption isn't computing power, it's display technology.

I'm going to disagree with you there and agree with author Charlie Stross: the limiting factor to eBook adoption is the cost of eBooks and eBook readers. Encumbering eBooks with DRm certainly doesn't help either. Why would I spend over $100 on an eBook reader and $25 on one eBook that I can't do whatever I want with, when I could buy the same book in physical form, lend it to whomever I want, sell it to a second-hand bookseller if I choose, write in it, cut the pages up, whatever?

Until those issues are resolved, eBook readers can have the best displays ever, and they still won't sell well enough to threaten the existence of physical books. Which means libraries and bookstores will be stocking paper books for a long time to come.

3/28/2007 4:49 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

They're both limiting factors, I think.

In the category of "minor limiting factors," we have a "display problem" of another sort. That is, nobody knows what books are on my shelf. A reporter I was talking to today said there was an Esquire article about how to set up your pad--including your bookshelf--to score the most chicks.

The answer, of course, is LibraryThing--your shelf ONLINE. But I don't think it's a complete answer. Not by far.

Then again, "hey, what are you reading?" is often unecessary today. In the future—"in the year 2,000!"—you won't know if someone is reading Harry Potter or the complete works of Seneca.

3/28/2007 5:15 PM  
Anonymous andyl said...

What do Esquire mean "your bookshelf"?

If one is good shouldn't multiple bookshelves stacked to the gunnels be better? If so, I haven't seen any benefit in the scoring department. Nor has reading on the bus and at work had any effect in attracting women.

3/28/2007 6:27 PM  
Blogger David said...

I would tend to agree with John's perspective on the adoption of e-Books.

I have one addition to make: The adoption of e-Books in academic libraries will me more rapid. I think this because:

#>Research is facilitated by the ability for students to annotate and rapidly search electronic texts unlike written texts
#>Universites will subsidize e-Books and associated reading technologies


3/28/2007 6:54 PM  
Blogger waltc said...

I think it important to note that whoever "walt" was up there (I see the Blogger profile's disappeared), it's not me (walt crawford).

My own take: No, public libraries won't die; Yes, they'll continue to be places of books and other stories, as well as non-physical resources and services, with books as the core; No, print books aren't going away (at least in my lifetime, hack hack cough).

I'm not of the opinion that optical discs are going away all that rapidly either--lots of us like owning physical bits and are nervous about "owning" DRM-heavy digital video and music. Netflix' head says maybe 20 years (as Netflix prepares for digital delivery)...

Meanwhile, many libraries will become much more active in "publishing" local content, one way or another. I think and hope.

3/28/2007 9:26 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Nobody knows how fast DVDs will go, but I think the Netflix guy's statement deserves some source criticism.

All things being equal it seems to me that DVDs "follow" CDs at a rate proportional to the rate at which the difference in data size matters in storage, transmission and processing. Other factors are certainly important, but I can't see them lining up to change the math.

The thing that gets me is when libraries position themselves as just the "free" place to get the same crap you can get everywhere else. That's a downward elevator for sure. Videos are already quite cheap to rent, in a nation growing richer by the day and with citizens who's increasingly complex and busy schedules mean a constant rise in the opportunity cost entailed in going to the library in the first place. (Netflix doesn't win on price; it wins on a lower opportunity cost.)

If digitization means libraries have the same stuff everyone else can get for a small fee--be it CDs or an article in a magazine--I'm afraid they really *are* in trouble. Maybe you can get some bulk savings there, but if that's all they're doing, you might as well buy the stuff in bulk on the town level and skip the building.

Incidentally, I'm not attacking the virtues of free for people who really need it. It burns me up how inadequate my town's resources are for the citizens who need it most--our large and highly disadvantaged immigrant population, mostly Somalis. At the same time, the library has this gorgeous rack of 2007 foreign travel guides--books that last only a year or two and which are intended to be borrowed by people taking trips costing *thousands*.

I wish my library said "patrons be damned" when it came to that stuff, and to the CDs borrowed (and certainly ripped) by people who could buy them, but are too cheap. Serving those needs is not what libraries are really about, is it?

3/28/2007 10:54 PM  
Blogger lili said...

I agree with waltc.

I was at a Library 2.0 'unconference' a couple of weeks ago, and the focus was not on what libraries are going to lose, but on what new things they can do. community publishing was one of them.

libraries need to stop being one-way conduits for (ahem) content, and start being facilitators for the creation and dissemination of content.

I also think that ebooks will absolutely replace research books and journals and newspapers (already how many people only read the news online?), but i am not convinced about novels - particularly with books for children. (you can't have a pop-up ebook, or those ones with furry things on them)

3/28/2007 11:02 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Of course, I'm in favor of libraries doing some new things. My particular focus is on getting them to do some of the things people expect from their experience with Amazon--reviews, ratings, summaries, recommendations, etc. And I think libraries are uniquely positioned to do "web social" things that have real presence in the "non-web social" world.

3/28/2007 11:04 PM  
Blogger lili said...

yes! i ranted about that a bit at the unconference. how great would it be if library catalogues looked like Amazon? you could see a picture of your book, read an extract, reviews, and then add your own tags to it.

get rid of the stupid US library of congress categories (we use them here in Australia too), and let users tag books. then if i'm writing a thesis on Young Adult books that reference Andy Warhol, I can totally find them.

3/28/2007 11:51 PM  
Blogger Walter Underwood said...

My son gets nearly all of his music from iTunes, but I don't use it at all. DRM is just too much hassle, especially in a three Mac, three iPod house. Given the hassles of making software work on the multi-user iMac, I don't want to think about DRM there.

We don't own many DVDs. We rent from Netflix and only buy the ones that the kids want on heavy rotation. For now, the DVD selection is far larger than what is licensable for download. Looking at the DVDs we've rented in the last few months, none of them are available for rental download.

By the way, Netflix is a library, a subscription library like the London Library. The rates are similar at the two institutions.

Also, I wouldn't count on tagging filling in details like "Young Adult books that reference Andy Warhol". Tagging is a Zip phenomenon and works best on popular topics. You can't trust it to be comprehensive out at the edges.

Disclosure: I work at Netflix.

I'm another "not Walt Crawford". I'm not even a "Walt", I'm a "Walter".

3/29/2007 1:00 AM  
Anonymous Cyndi said...

All I really know is that until I can drop my eBook into the bathtub and not kill myself, I won't be a fan. Also, I tend to leave books face down on the bathroom floor and glossy paperbacks tend to give me time to wipe off the water droplets before they soak through.

I finally just this year have accounts on Netflix and iTunes and while Netflix is the rockinest thing ever, iTunes continually irks me. I'm one of those weirdos who LOVES CD/MP3 players although my new lil iPod does fit in my purse better.

3/29/2007 10:37 AM  
Blogger Tim said...

The book-in-the-bathtub thing gets brought up a lot, and I think the larger point is good. But exactly how many books are REALLY read in the bathtub!

3/29/2007 11:35 AM  
Blogger Joshua M. Neff said...

When it comes to my wife: all of them. (Well, she won't take library books into the tub with her. Or my books. But her own? Oh, yeah. I'd say she drops at least 50% of them in the tub at least once.)

3/29/2007 1:35 PM  
Anonymous enthymeme said...

There's a book on this of course - Nicholas Basbane's _A Splendor of Letters: The Permanence of Books in an Impermanent World_.

3/29/2007 1:51 PM  
Anonymous Cyndi said...

Umm... I probably read for an hour or two a night in the tub because it's my only "alone time." Then on weekends I'll refill the tub twice while reading and if it's a really good book, I can go 4 hours without noticing how shriveled I am.

So, about 10 hours a week and I can read an average book in 2 or 3 hours. 52 weeks in a year... about 234 books just on my part get read in the tub every year. :D

3/29/2007 5:14 PM  
Blogger Alex Grigg said...

It looks like I'm a little late to the party, but I'll comment anyway.

1. There are so many easy ways to make normal electronics bathtub accessible that I don't see this issue being a real problem. Remember/still have all those bathroom clock radios? All it takes is a little plasticizing and you're good to go. We still need that cheap device that's comfortable to read on, but once we get there it's a small step to coat it with something waterproof.

2. DRM, DRM, DRM . . . and disk failure. People already brought this up so I won't rant too long, but most online media is still DRMed while being comparable in price to physical disks. Even as all my music goes into digital format I still like having a backup CD on a shelf somewhere. Even without DRM disks fail all the time. I don't trust keeping a couple of hundred or thousand dollars of media on a rewritable surface that could fail at any second. I know, I know, that's what backups are for, but if I have the original disks I don't have to be nearly as conscientious bout backing up gigs and gigs of files.

3. Back to the library as book place. Yes, it will continue to be a home for books well into the future. I think the real unique and useful importance of libraries comes from the access to specialized journals. I'm assuming that's being included in the "serials" that Tim didn't want to talk about, but I'm going to go ahead and talk about them anyway.

Specialized journals are the core of research and despite the growing push for Open Access there are still darn few publicly accessible journals. Journals have made that iTunes leap so that many of their articles are available on a pay per article basis. However, they're usually not cheap. Most articles will cost you at least $5 (Harvard Business Review for example) and most scientific journals are charging $20-$50 a pop (see IEEE's common $35 charge). That's not too bad if you need one article, but if you're doing any real research we're talking 10s or 100s of articles and that cost gets real ugly real fast. Libraries, on the other hand, pay for subscriptions so you can get those for free. Are most public library users doing that kind of research? Maybe not, but the academic library users certainly should be. That's where the real value of the library's materials budget is to the patrons.

Anybody can wait a few months and buy today's best seller for $5 used, but we're doomed to live with high priced serial subscriptions for years to come.

K, that's probably too much for anyone to bother reading so I'll shut up now.

3/30/2007 4:08 PM  
Blogger David said...

Alex, there may be 'darn few' open access journals but if you look at the rate of increase...

A directory of open access journals ( was launched in 2003, with a total of 375 titles, a year later that rose to 775. Today there are 2,600 open access journals listed.


3/30/2007 9:19 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

I agree all about this! I love books and think that they are dying.

4/01/2007 11:49 AM  
Blogger Blue Tyson said...

Ebook readers don't plug in? Well, unless someone has their PC in the bathroom. So not much danger of them zapping you I think :) Anyone that drops their PC or *plugged in* laptop in the bath, is well, errr...

Not for general use, anyway. Come to think of it, a PDA or phone in a ziploc bag is going to come out a hell of a lot better dropped in the bathtub than a paper book I would think.

You could do that with a book, but it would be hard to turn the pages!


If the numbers say not many people read, in general, then there can't be that many reading in the bath. You have the percentage of people that even have baths in their dwelling to make that smaller to start with.

4/02/2007 12:08 PM  
Blogger Alex Grigg said...

David, it's nice to get some numbers on the increase in open access journals, but unfortunately what really matters here is whether or not the open access journals are able to replace the existing pay journals. Too many expensive journals are owned by content providers that will most likely never allow free access. I'm rooting for OA, but it will take some time for academics to accept this new publishing model.

4/03/2007 9:16 AM  
Blogger David said...

Hi Alex,

The point you raise about OA journals is a good one and one which vexes me.

There is considerable pressure on the existing system of scholarly communication and this may force it to adopt new structures.

The current scholarly publication system is essentially a hierarchy of trust. How this will change is anyone's guess.

I am willing to hear any ideas on this one though!



4/05/2007 4:23 PM  
Anonymous christie said...

The library I work for does not have CDs or DVDs. Our director has decided our focus will be that of books. We have high circ stats and the bulk of that goes to the nonfiction. The only drawback that I can see is we decided to ban Myspace on our computers and will likely ban more social networks in the future. We tend to be going the opposite direction than most. I am still digesting this profession and where I stand as a librarian. hmmmm..... Thanks for the post.

4/09/2007 4:37 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

Yeah, I think a lot of libraries are going that direction—a shame, I think.

Don't most libraries have some comptuers in the kids area, if they really want to prevent that?

4/09/2007 4:58 PM  
Blogger K said...

Tim: I never have a bath without a book. Neither does my mother. We can't be alone.

4/09/2007 7:21 PM  

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