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?