shatzkin111[1]On the subject of libraries getting rid of books, Mike Shatzkin has written a blog post following up some comments of his that were quoted without much context in a Toronto Globe & Mail article. The comments had to do with how difficult it would become to find public libraries in the future.

Shatzkin notes that the infrastructure for e-book distribution is currently sketchy by comparison to that for printed books which has grown up over the decades—but that won’t always be the case. And when that infrastructure for e-books arrives, the state of the world will look very different than it does now.

In a “fully e-booked world,” we will own or have access to many screens, replacing many instances that would formerly have used print. We’ll take them with us when we leave home, or we’ll borrow them in places like medical waiting rooms. We won’t need to carry as many paper items around anymore once much of our personal business lives on these screens.

The core purpose — the founding purpose — of a library, around which other things have grown, is to deliver access to printed words. Even the smallest local library almost certainly had more content housed within it than any individual had in their home and, in most cases, far more content than would be available at any local store. It was the books in the library that initially defined the library and attracted a core of patrons to it. When all of us have access to more books on our screens than are in the library, what’s the point to the library?

At least, that’s what I was thinking.

Responding to a post by library professional Gary D. Price in response to his quoted remarks, Shatzkin brings up some other points. He expects libraries to vanish faster than the poor’s need will, whether that’s a good thing or not. He points out that communities could convert libraries into community centers that provide everything except books, and other community centers might be opened in the vacant storefronts left by closing bookstores—but he wonders whether a community center with few or no books could still be called a “library”.

He also notes that academic and special-purpose libraries will still be around, and there will still be a need for librarians even when printed books are in the minority. Librarians are trained in finding information in all media, after all; their association with books is only because they’ve been the major form of searchable media for so long.

An interesting take on this idea can be found in David Drake’s Republic of Cinnabar Navy series, which features librarian Adele Mundy as one of the main characters. Though Mundy doesn’t have books to reshelve (most of the time), she is an expert information search specialist, just like librarians of today. (She’s also handy with a gun, which is a much rarer librarian trait.)

When I showed this article to my mother, a school librarian, she found it interesting but doubted that it would happen in only fifteen years. But as Dr. Francis Collins of the Human Genome project said, we tend to overestimate the short term impact of a technology and underestimate the long term impact. I wonder what public libraries will look like in fifteen years?


  1. Perhaps that explains her fondness for used bookstores. The rarity of the catalyst does make a superpower all the most interesting. Though the truly paperless office seems to be one of those futures that remains perpetually just beyond the horizon.

    The small public library where I live has long embraced the “community center” concept, sponsoring readings, lectures, and other activities. Looking forward, if paywalls prove a viable business model and become widespread, site licenses could give libraries additional value.

  2. With today’s budget-cutting attitude, the financial crisis in our cities, and a general unwillingness to fund social projects, it’s easy to see libraries vanishing. Certainly library hours have already been cut dramatically in my area (Long Beach, CA). Libraries serve an interesting cross-section of the public with plenty of unemployed doing job searches, affluent people looking for craft projects, students working on projects and lining up to check their facebook accounts, and avid readers looking to save some money on their ‘habit.’ In my experience, community centers don’t do the same job.

    As a teen, I spent hours every day at the library. I wonder what escapes are available to today’s teens. I’d definitely hate to see the library vanish but I don’t think there’s any doubt about the direction.

  3. Don’t wonder too hard, Rob: TV, video games and the Internet are providing today’s kids’ escapes. (And hopefully an occasional book.)

    I’m surprised that this thread, which addresses the same issues as an earlier thread “Can the Internet replace libraries?” hasn’t become as flooded with pro and con responses as that earlier thread. Maybe everyone’s taking the weekend off. Or maybe everyone’s waiting for someone who doesn’t have Shatzkin’s credentials to agree with his points.

    At any rate, what I will address is the very last point of this thread: Libraries in 15 years. One example of the future library can be found in many big cities’ shopping malls: Storefronts are becoming library “outlets,” with a few shelves of books and rows and rows of… yes… computers with Internet access. A few experienced personnel float around and provide help to people searching for things. Physical books that are somewhere in the local library system can be ordered shipped to the outlet for locals’ use, then sent back to whichever library or warehouse it was originally stored.

    I expect many of the “community center” functions of today’s libraries–originally taking advantage of the libraries’ becoming centrally located, publicly available and non-denominational community centers in their own right–will revert back to the “community centers” that used to house them: Churches, neighborhood centers, schools and private homes. In many cases, I don’t see this as much of a change from what we have today (how much of a change is it to move a local gardening club meeting from a library to a school, for instance?); the repurposing of existing facilities for additional functions contributes to that facility’s utility, which isn’t a bad thing; and depending on the groups and uses, it can contribute to that facility’s budget as well.

  4. Libraries are also about the preservation of knowledge. We have yet to devise a good, universal archival format that I know of. As a librarian myself (academic) this concerns me a lot.

    The Library of Congress needs copies of all e-books in DRM-free formats both resistant to tampering and durable against physical and EMP damage. It’s just too important not to.

  5. hello I read your post.
    I am Guatemalan and I need library authors who say that libraries will disappear or change
    I could send your original article post or some other article related to this subject, so that they can cite.

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