Might e-readers replace vanishing libraries?

The UK’s Prospect Magazine has a piece by Leo Benedictus looking at the besieged state of libraries in the UK (with over 450 library closures planned), and wondering whether this is as terrible a thing as library supporters contend given how well e-book readers work.

Benedictus suggests that some defenders of libraries might be doing so less out of a belief in libraries’ intrinsic beneficence than a moral obligation to defend endangered species, and many of the benefits of libraries can be found in e-book readers.

The talk of a future in which children cannot access books is also not just wrong, but backwards. E-readers—already available for £52, and falling—offer an incomparably more convenient way for anyone to find good things. While defending libraries, surely there is also time to promote the fact that, thanks to Project Gutenberg and Google Books, every child in the country can now download virtually any out-of-copyright book for nothing. (Piracy will doubtless do the same for most in-copyright books too, as may digital lending, though this is less cause for celebration.)

I know that my Dad—a former librarian himself—was astounded by just how many books are available via Project Gutenberg, and I have little doubt he will get more than the worth of the $60 he spent on the Kobo out of reading books from that vast repository.

I’m a little hesitant to suggest that e-books can replace vanished libraries, but part of that might just be my respect for a long-lived existing institution talking. I know that I’ve gotten to the point where I view paper books as unwanted shackles to a reading experience I would rather have on a portable device or a computer screen, and I’m a lot more likely to let a library book I’ve requested and checked out sit around for weeks unread than I am to take the time to read it.

Sites like Project Gutenberg help to replace the “classics” section of a library, but the new-titles section is a bit harder. As Benedictus notes, peer-to-peer can make up for it, but only to people who are willing to undertake the risks and complications associated with using it, and to the detriment of writers.

Perhaps some kind of digital lending library could be created after the Overdrive model, that would lend books to people regardless of geographical location, but I have a hard time seeing publishers going for that—especially if the “26 lends per purchase” model adopted by HarperCollins gains traction with other publishers.

27 Comments on Might e-readers replace vanishing libraries?

  1. If you think that libraries are only about books you probably have not visited a library in a long while. Yes, paper books dominate most library spaces, but not the activity in the libraries.

    Public libraries today are as much about activities around literature and cultural experiences, and librarians are still needed to help navigate no matter if it is in physical collections or ebook repositories (which are way more confusing that bookshelves)

    What children get in a library is more than books. They get advice and guidance from professional children’s librarians, they get to experience literature as more than words on a page and they find an environment that is unique in that it is not commercial, it is accepting. Last, but not least, it is an environment where children are allowed to make their own desicions.

    This is not easy to replace with ebooks.

  2. Libraries are yesterday’s solution to yesterday’s problems. They have no future in a world of online and eBooks where millions of titles can be accessed and even borrowed online without the need to maintain multi million dollar libraries.

    The real goal of Libraries was to encourage reading among those unable to afford to buy books. That was a worthy goal and Libraries achieved that well. I have used libraries regularly throughout my life.

    With the advent of the internet, this goal can be achieved in a far cheaper and more efficient way though eReaders and eBooks. Welfare schemes can offer eReaders at affordable prices, though imho they will be available at super cheap prices within two or three years anyway. The less well off can also be helped to access eBooks with online vouchers sponsored by welfare departments. There is no need for a public open lending scheme.

    The other ‘activities’ that go on libraries are ancillary and have grown as a way of justifying their existence. They are unnecessary, duplicating services elsewhere and need to be done away with.

  3. Howard. Wow. Just wow. The elitist arrogance in that comment is kind of overwhelming.

  4. Deanna. I have no trouble with someone disagreeing with Me, nor with someone who may demonstrate where I might be wrong.
    But I do not believe you can support an accusation of me being elitist, nor of arrogance.
    Please elucidate …

  5. The tone of pretty much all of your comment, but I can go more specific.

    Libraries are more than just books. What you call “ancillary” activities that “are unnecessary, duplicating services elsewhere and need to be done away with.”

    Example, in my town there are, at best, two computers that can be ‘rented’ for internet use. One at PostNet and one at the UPS Store. The senior center might still have a computer with internet access for use by it’s members. We had over 2000 computer sign ups last month at the local library. MANY of those were people who are looking for work, most of the rest are seniors. They’re all people who can’t afford a computer and internet access who don’t have another option.

    If you’ve tried calling a Social Security office or Unemployment lately you known their phone lines are overwhelmed. They don’t have enough people to deal with the calls, people are being referred to the websites. Where, other than a library, are these “less well off” supposed to get the computer and internet access they need?

  6. @Deanna: What it sounds like you’re defending is not libraries, but in fact, Internet access. In a perfect world, the Internet can provide an effective substitute for libraries, getting better every day, and I can easily imagine their ultimately replacing them.

    However, it’s hardly a perfect world, and not everyone on it has equal (or, in some cases, any) Internet access. In those cases, available libraries make up for the lack of availability of their eventual replacement.

    @Thomas: The aspects of libraries you mentioned can be recreated in online venues, some maybe not as well, but some better. Ultimately, I don’t think any of those items will prevent e-readers and Internet access from effectively replacing libraries.

  7. @Steven: Internet access was just a quick easy example of something that libraries provide, that is not duplicated elsewhere, that won’t be replaced by ebook “online vouchers sponsored by welfare departments” for the “less well off” as Howard phrased it. And yes part of that is that the “less well off” wouldn’t be able to get to Howard’s “online vouchers” because many of them don’t have online access without libraries.

    There are many other things libraries do, internet was just a quick and easy answer I could give Howard.

  8. If the libraries all close, then where are the bums going to find a free place to pee?

  9. All I know from working in libraries is that I spend a lot of my time helping people find what they want/need in an increasingly bewildering information universe. Librarians are needed to bridge the digital divide (which is real) and I might also mention that not all problems are solved by handouts. I doubt online services will replace f2f interaction totally. BUT I will agree that libraries must look at what they do and how they do it. Many services can be moved online, but there will still be a need for a “third place” for children and others that do not have other arenas available.

  10. @Thomas Yes, so true.

    We just replaced the phone system in my library, to one that actually works – yay for working, but what we didn’t change is that anyone that calls gets a human answering the phone. You don’t go into some phone tree, you get a person right off. That’s not going to change anytime soon.

    Most of the other libraries in the area have switched to self checkout. We haven’t, and won’t. We’ve said in the past that if someone tries to force our patrons to use self checkout that person’s going to be looking for a new job.

    Our patrons WANT the face to face interaction. We’ve got a high percentage of seniors, and many of them are alone. They need a little human interaction, and we’re one of the places they go to for that.

    @DensityDuck
    What about the seniors on social security who can’t afford to run the a/c at their homes because utility bills went up 35% last year? Those good for nothing loafers come in the library and read magazines all day soaking up the cool air. Of course, they’ve got options They could stay home and die. Las Vegas summers are good at that. /sarcasm

  11. In a country where we’re seeing basic medical care under attack, I doubt very much we’ll ever see vouchers for ereaders and ebooks.r

  12. becca – I may agree .. but that doesn’t mean it would not work well as a way of achieving the same goal. The US does have a significant library budget, and converting that budget to a voucher based system would both save a huge amount of money and cheaply allow welfare recipients to read more.

  13. Philip van Zijl // April 5, 2011 at 6:16 pm //

    A New Zealand perspective:

    Indeed. Libraries are about people, not just access – by the time they come to the library those that have access to the Web at home, have realised they cannot find what they are looking for, and need a human being that can be trusted. If you look at library design, this social aspect is well reflected.
    The Public Library is about having the right space, equipment, infrastructure, building and people to address the needs of the community it serves. The technology is the enabler, but the content provides the value. The importance of the content is the major trend for the future: the demand for content in a variety of formats, the digitisation of local material and the repositories of the stories and history of the community. Libraries are key to generating, storing, protecting and making available information, both electronic and digital.
    • Libraries have become social hubs and is about space provision and access. The concept of the community living room has come to the fore in conceptual design to create spaces, where people want to be
    • The library has developed as a cultural place, meeting place, social, recreational and learning space, with the design challenges to cater for a wide range of needs and customers
    • With more information digitally available, with increasing complexity and sheer volume, people are realizing it is becoming more difficult to access the right information. Librarians have always been trusted to demystify and assist with the finding process and are now looked on at as the navigators to locating the right information, when own searching has failed. Consequently, the library has become the place to get assistance even with hardware problems in this pursuit of life-long learning, both formal and informal
    Academic libraries have taken the lead in designing a one-stop shop where clients can access both p-books, e-books and other electronic platforms, but also provide the spaces for learning or even relaxation. Pro-active programmes of Information Literacy have become an integral part of teaching and learning. Public libraries have followed this shift in paradigm with the design of libraries.
    Enough said. Anyboby that states that libraries are superfluous, should spend some time in one.

  14. Clearly Libraries have developed ancillary activities over the years. These have mainly developed in order to utilise the underused nature of most libraries. Most of these services have duplicated other services already available in most communities but they have been encouraged as part of a strategy of self justification. All of these services are already available elsewhere and can easily be delivered, if required, without the necessity to maintain costly Library staff and buildings. Librarians tend to disagree, unsurprisingly.
    It is clear to me that Libraries are not needed in the longer term and should be phased out. That is not to say immediately. Only when and if the transition to eBooks is substantially complete. I see maybe another 10 years of relevance.
    At that stage the service should essentially be abolished and the original intent re established through programs to enable the less well off to gain access to reading and learning.
    Those ancillary activities that have developed should be delivered in a more efficient and appropriate context, instead of being essentially exploited to justify the existence of libraries.
    We are regularly regaled by readers and authors who have developed emotional dependencies on paper books, the smell of paper books, the feel of paper books etc etc. While respecting their emotional dependency most of us realise that this is a generational thing and will pass. The same goes for libraries. The emotional connection with them is strong. But it is unsupported by any kind of real need. The substantial time I spend in Libraries throughout my life was wonderful. They did their job. Their job is now passing to another model. Time to say thanks and move on.

  15. Philip van Zijl // April 5, 2011 at 8:09 pm //

    We have heard all these arguments before: The Intenet was going to replace Libraries/Books – never before in the history of humankind has more books been published; The paperless office – never happened.

    Yes, all these services are available elsewhere, even at home, so why are people streaming into libraries? The answer is simple: Librarians.

    We have adapted (OK, expanded our empires), in response to demand of the public, however defined.

  16. I had a project I needed to do for an art history class I took last spring. My library was a great help (more so than the Internet) in finding the books I needed, the pictures I needed to complete the project. The librarian, in conversation, even suggested an angle for the project I hadn’t thought of, and that earned me an A on the project.

    Sometimes, you simply need the human interaction that you can’t get from the Internet and ebooks.

  17. I’m a big ereader fan (obviously, or I wouldn’t be here!) I love my ipad and just got a Kobo which I’m also really enjoying. You’ll find no better booster of ebooks than me!

    But I also know that there’s no way that an ebook or ereader is going to replace the services a library provides, especially where children are concerned. Perhaps Howard considers them merely a niche population or expensive special interest, but they are actually future adults and if they’re going to turn into readers (and future ebook/ereader consumers) then this is the time to get them interested.

    I read an article a while back (sorry, can’t find it now) that cited research suggesting that children really do better with physical artifacts – board books, big picture books with actual pages that turn, popups, etc. Once they can navigate the physical object, then they’re ready for the symbolic dimensionless world of the ebook. But electronic is probably not a great way to start with a two-year-old.

    Besides offering a collection of books, libraries also offer research assistance to students and grownups, computer training classes for seniors, storytime for kids, special performances, meeting space, and just a chance to get out of the house and go to a public space that’s not all about the almighty dollar/pound/euro. (Maybe that’s what Howard doesn’t like about it?)

  18. Howard: You say:

    “Clearly Libraries have developed ancillary activities over the years. These have mainly developed in order to utilise the underused nature of most libraries. Most of these services have duplicated other services already available in most communities but they have been encouraged as part of a strategy of self justification. All of these services are already available elsewhere and can easily be delivered, if required, without the necessity to maintain costly Library staff and buildings. Librarians tend to disagree, unsurprisingly.”

    Can you be more specific? What services are dveloped to utilise underused libraries? What services duplicate other services already available in most communities? I have worked in libraries since 1988 and during this period I have not seen the services the libraries I have worked in duplicated elsewhere.

    You have not adressed the need for interaction with people that seems to be a basic part of the human psyche. According to research libraries generate 4$ for the community for every 1$ invested. Small businesses use libraries, students, who have access to the internet at home still come into libraries to get help. I do not see these services elsewhere in most communities. But I may know different communities than you.

    Most libraries have an intimate knowledge of their communities and offer services that are needed exactly because they are not offered by anyone else. The public outcry when libraries are threatened is not just an nostalgic outporing, but demonstrates a real use and need. Most libraries are busier than ever and most librarians spend their days on their feet, not sitting around underutilized and thinking up new services to justify the existence of libraries.

    So Howard, what services would you say are duplicated and can be replaced with the internet (and who would offer these services on the net?

  19. Thomas they have all or mostly been set out in this thread and I don’t need to ream them off again. And they are all either duplicated elsewhere in our communities or are services that do not justify the costs of a Library system to deliver them.

  20. Sorry Howard, but I have re-read the post and the comments, and I cannot see any mention of a service/many services that replaces the services libraries offer. If you can give me any example of another institution that offers homework service, meeting rooms for local organizations, navigation and advice on how to use the internet, job seeking classes and many other for free in an welcoming environment then feel free to list them.

    As far as I can see libraries offer so much that to replace them with vouchers for ebooks would be a great tragedy. I know that more than half the traffic in libraries I know well are not about books, but about activities and social interaction. That cannot be replaced with vouchers or “your on your own”-attitude.

    I challenge you to come up with any other institution that could have done what Naturita Community Library have achieved: http://www.libraryjournal.com/naturita

  21. @Thomas: I think Howard’s point (and mine) is that it’s true that there is no one institution that duplicates the services of a library… but the services you mentioned, and more besides, are offered by other sources, to wit:

    • Homework service–schools, tutors, online;
    • Meeting rooms for local organizations–community centers and government buildings, and many organizations are using online forums for meetings and business transaction;
    • Navigation and advice on how to use the internet–everyone and anyone, including the Internet itself;
    • Job seeking classes–employment offices, online;
    • etc.

    It’s true that there’s a legitimate value to human interaction. On the other hand, I’ve been to libraries where the librarians were either too busy to help me, could not help me find what I wanted, or simply pointed me to the card catalog and walked away. And this in Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, holder of one of the best library systems in the country at the time I frequented them. And as resources get tighter, those kind of incidents are more likely to increase than decrease.

    At the same time, you are discounting the value of the many connections and resources that can be found online, including forums specifically designed to help and guide you in specific areas, led by knowledgeable people in those fields. In short, there are plenty of smart people online… they’re not all hanging out at the library.

    It’s also true that many online entities have trust issues. Given time and peer review, those trusted sites generally rise to the top of the pile (much like this site) and become standards for others to meet or exceed, or be abandoned.

    I’m sure we could go into a line-by-line comparison, but I think it’s clear that online sources could replace most of the functions of a library, and in time, may do them one better (if they don’t already).

  22. Howard and Steven: You seem to suppose that the Internet and services will not change in the future and that disenfranchised people will have the skills and understanding to get online and navigate an environment that is extremely bewildering to newcomers, and lets face it, a majority of the worlds population is still not on the net and there is still a large percentage of the US and European populations that are outside this environment. They still need libraries. Children will not change, and there will be new children most of the time.

    Online sources or other community sources can replace parts of the library, but not the whole. Online sources and other community sources are a lot more vulnerable to changing times and the enthusiasm of a few. Libraries in the US have a 200 year history and libraries in the rest of the world have existed for more than 3000 years. One of the good things about libraries is that they last and change with the times. If a library starts a service you know that it will not just dissapear one day and you know who is responsible and accountable. Most parents trust libraries to create a safe environment for their children, please tell me of any private or public service that does the same and still is open to all.

    Who do you think will step in and rescue the millions of books that Google has scanned the day Google goes bust? Who will be around and convert ebook files and formats to new and better formats in the future?

    Sorry guys, but there is no other entety in the whole world that can replace libraries, and any collection of different online and physical services that could replace libraries are not up to the task in a 100 or even 1000 year perspective. Most national libraries operate on a 1000 year scale when they work with saving our common heritage, and most public libraries operate on the 100 year perspective, saving and preserving local information and the thing is, they are damn good at it. Libraries as a system is one of the most valuable pillars of modern civilization.

    Libraries are an evolved answer to a real need in most societies. Libraries will change with the times, but always be a valuable service to all communities that have them.

  23. @Steven
    Which brings us back to where are people supposed to get online to find these magical solutions? How are people who’ve never touched a computer supposed to learn enough to get online to find them?

    I’m guessing that Howard and Steven have never lived in rural towns with populations less than 2000, where it’s an hour or more to any of the services you list. My experience growing up in towns like that:
    * Homework service– at best, there might be a retired teacher who’ll tutor – of course that means the parents have to have the spare money to pay.
    * Meeting rooms for local organizations–you’re assuming every town has a community center, in a lot of small towns the only place other than a library might be a church.
    * Navigation and advice on how to use the internet–Again, for people that have never touched a computer, they have no where to start.
    * Job seeking classes–Oh yeah, because everyone can afford the gas to drive hours to get to an employment office.

    What I see again, and again, and again, are people who’ve always lived in cities saying service x, y and z are available anywhere. Which, while possibly true in cities, isn’t true in rural areas. And yes, by definition rural areas don’t have as many people, but I don’t think those people deserve to be abandoned.

  24. @Thomas: Actually, I’m supposing that Internet services and Internet access will improve over time. And keep in mind that many of the disenfranchised you mention don’t have access to libraries either, but can get to a community center (or even a community smartphone) that has Internet access. Already today, people in third-world areas who never had regular access to libraries or books are using cellphone connections to get information and improve their lot.

    Thomas, libraries are evolving with the rest of us. For all their traits, they are not perfect, they are not 100% accessible, and increasingly there are alternatives. Assuming that Google’s someday-closing will somehow eradicate thousands of years of progress, or that they are the only ones who can (and are) updating old formats to be available in the future, isn’t an excuse not to progress, nor does it somehow prove that libraries are better and cannot be replaced… it’s more of an anti-progress rant.

    It really doesn’t make any difference whether or not the library can do all the things it does. What is important is that all of those things can be, and are, being done by someone, and in diffusing them among the society in more and smaller entities, ought to be able to serve more people–and serve them better–than the one institution.

  25. @Deanna: Back in the day, churches used to be the community center, where people gathered and–this is important–taught each other how to do things. People can teach other people a lot, and even the stranger next to you can help you out. Sometimes more than a busy librarian can.

    Again, the people who don’t have access to those services that city dwellers take for granted, are getting access through group-owned laptops and internet-enabled cellphones, and being helped by the people standing right next to them to use it. They aren’t acting like your idea of “abandoned people”… they’re enabling themselves, using the best technology at hand. And the library a few dozen, or a few hundred miles away isn’t a part of that. This is the world that’s evolving around us.

  26. “People can teach other people a lot, and even the stranger next to you can help you out. Sometimes more than a busy librarian can.”

    That’s true, and that’s one of the values of a library. Many times I’ve sat reading a book to my daughter in the childrens’ room and ended up reading to another child who happened to wander by, or talking to another parent.

    If we’re home in our house in front of our computer, and the other families are all home in front of their computers, that interaction doesn’t happen.

    What’s next? Let’s get rid of playgrounds, people can set up their own exercise sets at home?

  27. Stephen: So you are basically saying that the services needs to be done, but not by libraries? You want to replace libraries with something else, in fact many something elses, and they should do what libraries do today and tomorrow. So basically you want to replace something that works with something that does not work yet, but might? You want to replace libraries with… new libraries that are called something else?

    Howard: If there is duplicaton. Why should libraries cease to offer the duplicated service? Why not the other entity that offer this service?

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