The Shatzkin Files

It will be hard to find a public library 15 years from now

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I spoke last week to a group in Montreal convened by the English-language Publishers of Quebec and the Quebec Writers Association in a small auditorium at the Atwater Library. The Atwater Library is a private library with very limited government funding which is more than 100 years old. (The Globe and Mail article that quoted me says it dates from 1828.) It occupies a nostalgia-provoking building on a downtown corner across from a small park and a long slapshot away from the site of the no-longer-present Montreal Forum, where the Canadiens played for many years (and where I was fortunate enough to see a game once in 1958.)

The topic of the talk was whatever I wanted it to be so I riffed on what I think are the two big themes of digital change in publishing: vertical and global. Readers of this blog have seen material on both. Vertical refers to subject-specificity, or, if you prefer, audience-specificity. I posit that publishing across subjects — as all the biggest consumer publishers do — is made possible by bookstores, who sort the books onto shelves that make sense to customers.

An important component of the “vertical” argument is the inevitable decline of bookstores. What leads to that is the inexorable movement of customers from shopping in stores to shopping online, combined with the “critical mass” requirement for a bookstore. Some people say a bookstore will close if it loses 10% of its business; I usually say 15%. Obviously, it varies with the store. Just as obviously, a store doesn’t need to lose all its business, or even half of it, before it would be economically unviable and forced to close.

As stores close, shopping in them becomes less convenient. As the remaining stores cut back on the shelf space they can devote to books, they become less attractive. All this drives more and more people to buy print online or to switch to ebooks.

Since the single most critical skill set for consumer publishers for the past 100 years has been being able to put books on bookstore shelves, this is a frightening development for any trade publisher paying attention.

The global trend is more encouraging for people in publishing today and it is particularly more cheerful for publishers in small countries who deliver content in big languages. That means Canadian publishers in both English and French should benefit enormously as the ebook infrastructure builds out and puts them closer to customers all over the world.

Partly because we were in a library and partly because somebody asked, I also ruminated about the future of libraries. The Toronto Globe & Mail reported it this way:

And libraries? “Libraries make no sense in the future,” Shatzkin said on stage in a library that dates back to 1828. Anyone with Internet access already has access to far more books than were in that library, he pointed out. “There is no need for a building.” There will be an ongoing need for librarians, however; their skills will continue to be in demand, as will those of editors.

This quote, which was really off-hand, is clearly annoying a lot of people. So I thought it would be worth devoting a post to the subject of the future of libraries.

First of all, the key word is “future.” I find myself making the point repeatedly that the infrastructure for printed book creation and distribution has had mostly organic change for about 100 years now. It’s a well-developed capability. Publishers know how to make printed books well and efficiently; they know how to find and serve the customers for them. They know how to print them at scale and, over the last dozen years or so, 1-at-a-time. The special requirements that libraries have to prepare books for shelving are met seamlessly by Ingram and Baker & Taylor.

The print book infrastructure is like a network of roads, sidewalks, and superhighways. Everything gets where it wants to go by well-established paths.

Ebooks live in a different world. There are no superhighways and, for many books and many markets, there isn’t even a beaten path yet. We’re still hacking our way through the jungle. So, for the most part, the world we’ll live in when there is a fully-built ebook infrastructure only exists in our imagination today.

The world I was describing in the quoted and paraphrased section of my talk is imaginary. It is expected (at least by me), but it isn’t here yet and I wasn’t trying to suggest that it is.

In a fully ebooked world, which I expect we’ll be living in 10 or 15 years from now, print books won’t be extinct, but they’ll be either exotic or very purpose-driven. They won’t be common or an ordinary way to deliver content, the way they are today.

I also expect a world where all of us will have access to, or personal ownership of, many screens. Through those screens, we’ll also have access to a variety of content that is suggested by what the Internet can deliver us today. My hunch is that, by then, our “basic Internet” (think “basic cable”) subscription will include access to more books than exist in most libraries today, with shedloads of others available for usually nominal and occasionally substantial additional fees. We may have to choose a screen (or two) to carry with us when we leave our house in the morning (or not — there will be screens to borrow at Starbucks and the hotel lobby and the waiting room at your dentist), but we’ll have access to content for it (or them) wherever we are and at any time. Since the same screen will deliver us our tools for personal productivity (the blog post I’m working on, the shopping list for the cheese store on the way home), probably connect us to our money, and, of course, contain our calendar and directions to the party we’re supposed to go to this evening, carrying additional “stuff” — whether a book, a magazine, a newspaper, or a notepad — will be a long-discarded anachronism.

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.

The very thoughtful Gary Price, who is a library and information professional who has spent far more time considering libraries this or any other week than I have in my lifetime, posted his ruminations on this subject, triggered by the paragraph in the Globe and Mail but going way beyond them. Gary raises some good points worthy of response (about which he has posted additional thoughts since I saw and wrote about them.)

He wonders what kind of libraries I’m talking about. Simple answer: consumer libraries. Libraries that serve a professional constituency — academic or otherwise — are outside the scope of these predictions.

Gary observes that statistics show that libraries are being used more than ever. I don’t doubt that but it doesn’t undercut my belief about where things will be in 10 or 15 years. Newspapers had record years for profits in the mid-1990s.

Gary observes that many people use the library for more than books, specifically citing their mission in providing technology education and to provide Internet access, and making the point that not everybody has access to the computer and the Internet at home. In my opinion, all these objections will be almost entirely mooted in the next 10 or 15 years.

(A parenthetical point. In the US, at least, the poor will almost certainly always be with us. People will be left behind by change; our country routinely permits that. I’m a liberal Democrat; that’s not an aspect of America that makes me happy. Libraries will vanish faster than the need for them does. I predict what I believe will happen, not what I want to happen.)

He points out that there are special collections, archives, and other materials found in library buildings and that they, as well as some books, might not be digitized anytime soon. Perhaps true, although a lot less true in 10 or 15 years. But what percentage of today’s libraries would that kind of material keep open? Particularly if we’re talking about libraries for consumers? A small percentage, I’d warrant.

As others have, Gary points to the community events that take place in a library as a counter to my argument. I don’t think it is. I didn’t say community centers would cease to exist. There are many community centers that aren’t libraries. The fact that it is convenient and sensible for a town to use its local library building for other purposes doesn’t mean they need to keep the library to serve those other purposes. In fact, there will be lots of empty former retail storefronts to use as community centers all over America in 10 or 15 years.

One of the people at the Atwater in Montreal told me that they are reducing their shelf space for books (like a lot of bookstores, I might add.) If we get to the day when the store is still called Barnes & Noble and it has one shelf of books and is otherwise full of stationery, plush toys, and reading gadgets, is it still a bookstore? If the Atwater converts itself over time into a commmunity center with one room that has some books in it, will it still be a library?

I don’t think so. Others may disagree, but I would call that a semantic argument, not a substantive one.

Gary’s last point, which has nothing to do with anything I said, is to ponder what happens to the books and other materials in a library if the library shuts down. He hopes they don’t end up in a dumpster. I take no position on that (if they have value at the time, they won’t), but I would point out that many libraries today, unlike the situation a few years ago, won’t take your contribution of books when you clean your shelves at home. They have no place to put them and many, like Atwater, have less space for books, not more. I know libraries try to hold used book sales to make money, but I imagine we’re going to find that libraries will be causing books to be destroyed in the future, from necessity.

I did make the point in Montreal, which the Globe and Mail picked up and Gary applauded, that librarianship will be needed by people long after buildings full of books are not. That’s going to require an entirely new business model that hasn’t been invented yet. Consider that part of the paved infrastructure that we’ll have in a decade or so, but can only exist in our imaginations at the moment.

How about writing a whole post about libraries and not mentioning the HarperCollins limitation on ebook lending? Maybe another day…

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  • The demise of print books, bookstores and libraries in favor of eBooks is very sad to me. I have not embraced eBooks, although I do agree that they have their place. But losing physical books and the buildings that these books reside in to obsolescence almost makes me glad that I will be soon shuffling off of this mortal plane and into the next, where hopefully there will be a place to check out books.

    • You don't have to leave this planet to still have books. You'll just have to

      work a little harder to find and get them (if you call going online working

      harder…) Not nearly as much trouble as you're proposing…


      • Going online to “find and get books” as you put it, is not difficult, I agree. However, I was lamenting the loss of the special environment that a library or a bookstore is – a “social” place with books, movies, information, reference sections, etc. – they even have computers to get online. Visiting a library is not the same experience as sitting with my laptop searching the Internet for books, not even close. However, I guess my point was not made correctly and hence, missed.

      • The social value of the bookstore or library is not questioned. But that

        social value is built around the magnet of books in a building. That magnet

        won't attract people in the future the way it has in the past. Ipso facto,

        the social value will also be diminished.

        Ten or fifteen years away, which is when I placed the large-scale vanishing

        of libraries, is a *very* long time. Amazon had barely begun 15 years ago.

        Ebooks had a run of about 8 years from the first dedicated readers in 1999

        to when they began to take of from under 1% of sales in 2007.

        The entire book, ebook, and information infrastructure will look completely

        different a decade and a decade-and-a-half from now. There are a lot of ways

        that might go, but I don't think large collections of printed books — in

        stores or libraries — will feature much at that point.


      • Becky

        I also agree that the printed books are going to become less common. Progressively as books wear out they get replaced with e-books. I don't think this is a bad thing really, just times are a changing. I do believe the people and government should still support libraries during this change by encouraging them to change focus and become more of community style centers.

  • Onlan book is nice! but not like this is not comparable to the pleasure when lying on the couch chitash this book

  • Becky

    I think you are only looking at libraries from your countries view. In Australia our libraries are not just about reading books, what they are are places to socialize. This is done in lots of different ways, mothers with babies or very young kids are encouraged to come to their local library though a kids play area/actives or to learn about parenting. In our libraries you can get a free coffee and sit down and read the paper or work on a ongoing jigsaw puzzle. The libraries let you plug your laptop in and give free wireless internet (and with how large Australia is and how spread out we live, cable internet is not practical outside of the large cities), people get access to movie DVDs (again our download speeds are pathetic so downloading video is not going to work for most of the country here). Our libraries have rooms we can use for group meeting, things like seed swapping or for club meetings. In Australia over half of us have a library card. In the last disaster, the floods some of our libraries stayed open 24 hours for 3 days or more so people could charge their phone, torches, use skype to let their loved ones know they where safe, print out insure forms, plus many other things. Our libraries are removing or not renewing some print books like encyclopedias due to the internet, but guess what instead they are stocking more foreign language books, large print books, kids' books and others. In affect our libraries are already community centers that are supported by our government.

    So yes the library in 10-50 years won't look like the libraries of today, this is not a bad thing. They need to be what the people want not what the government thinks they should be. If it isn't growing its dying. Which do you want a living growing library or for your library to go extinct? If you love your libraries take action and go and ask your local library for the things you and your friends would really use.
    Start today.

    • yuzutea

      He addressed your point in the paragraph about community centers.

    • Becky, the difference between our view isn't geographical, it is temporal.

      You're talking about now. I'm not. I'm talking about 10 or 15 years from

      now. What happened in the last round of floods isn't really relevant to the


      I hope Australia will maintain its civic spaces and civic posture well into

      the future. But paper books are headed for very difficult times in Australia

      already. Ask anybody who's in the business locally; they'll tell you.


  • Yuzutea

    I can definitely see the argument for physical bookstores being greatly diminished or absent in 10-15 years, but I'm finding it harder to see the argument for libraries (in their book-related aspect) disappearing in 10-15 years.

    Specifically: “My hunch is that, by then, our “basic Internet” (think “basic cable”) subscription will include access to more books than exist in most libraries today, with shedloads of others available for usually nominal and occasionally substantial additional fees. ”

    How does this occur? The publishers (at least the larger ones) seem to be totally not interested in such a direction, as in the HarperCollins ebook lending limitations. What occurs, and when, that changes their minds? Apologies if this is something you have discussed in a previous post.

    • The large publishers of today will have very little power in much less than

      15 years.

      And it will occur by subscription and collective licensing. Because that's

      where the money will be.


  • Some provocative conjecture here, Mike. Rather defective, but provocative. Public libraries have evolved synchronously with bookstores while serving myriad purposes to every kind of taxpayer. I believe most communities, in more prosperous times, will be willing to foot the bill.

    • I guess what's defective will be revealed over time.


  • I'm not convinced that the death of bookstores means the death of libraries. I often wonder if bookstores decrease if some people might turn more towards libraries.

    I use my library more than my bookstore (and my e-reader which I love) for budgeting & convenience purposes. Libraries are so easy to use nowadays with the online catalogs. I check and see if they have any books I want (normally with goodreads open in another window) then swing by on the way home from work.

    The library that I mainly use (I'm a member of 3) has programming almost every weekend and is the 6th most used library in the state of Ky (where it's not nearly the 6th biggest city or county population wise). I think libraries just have to be smart and realize what void they fill in the community. I rarely go to my library and don't find tons of people on the computers and roaming around.

    • Cassi, I think most of the circumstances you are describing about libraries

      and about people's other choices will have changed materially over the next

      10 or 15 years. I wasn't suggesting a current condition. I think your

      disagreement is not a disagreement, but a reframing of my future conjecture

      around the current situation. Not relevant.


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  • marlened

    “There will be an ongoing need for librarians, however; their skills will continue to be in demand, as will those of editors.”
    Can you develop : what librarians' skills are you thinking of ? Which ones should we emphasize now to be here tomorrow, as librarians ?

  • JennyB

    Libraries provide more than books–they provide quality content that has been selected by knowledgeable librarians. When you have 100,000 self-published (e-)books coming out each year, most of them extremely bad, the value of that pre-screening becomes even more important.

    I have learned over the years that I am much more likely to find the high quality nonfiction I love to read on the New Books shelf of my library than I am at any bookstore. Libraries stock outstanding small press and academic press titles. And they keep these good books on their shelves unlike the bookstores where they vanish in weeks or months.

    • I am thinking that as the content we have access to grows in volume and the

      tools for exploring it become more sophisticated, professional help to get

      the most out of the content will be increasingly valuable. In the

      professional world, this means paid researchers with librarian skills and

      knowledge. I'm not sure what the business model will be for helping

      consumers sort through the fire hose of content they'll have access to, but

      librarianship is certainly a capability that many will want to see applied.


  • Abackwardsstory

    What a scary thought!

    I don't think libraries will go away. If anything, they'll move online and have more money to throw into titles b/c there will be less workers to staff. My local library has a huge e-book database. Granted, Kindle doesn't allow for the reading of library books, but it may in the future. One of the selling points for my e-reader, nook, is the fact that it reads a library format.

    • There are lots of scary thoughts to contemplate in the future.

      Library lending of ebooks is going to run into the commercial model at some

      point. It is sort of doing that now (the HarperCollins thing and two other

      major publishers that don't participate in library lending at all.)

      And online repositories available for loan or subscription will not be a

      “library” as we now understand them. Nor will a community center that isn't

      built around the presence of books.


      • Becky

        I'm a small niche publisher. I like the model that Harper Collins used but think they are too mean with only letting a e-book be read 26 times. I think a realist number that echoes reality would be something like 200 times. Yes it would mean a lot less sales but it would insure publishers support good writers. If a book is hot lirbary will buy more than one.

    • Becky

      I just read that the Kindle may soon let you borrow an ebook from your friends Kindle for 14 days, during this time your friend can't read their book. I think this is a workable solution that echoes how people use their real books. As a bonus you know you always get your e-book back. 🙂

      • Yes, Kindle and B&N's Nook offer this capability for books where the

        publisher allows it.


  • Jean Costello

    Mike, I've done considerable research & thinking about the dilemmas facing America's public library and share your view on this. In “Imagine scarcity – it can save public libraries” I speculate about what our informational lives will be like in the near future and ask of libraries (with a hat tip to Kent Anderson at the Scholarly Kitchen Blog) “What is scarce in what we do? And how do we leverage that to create new value?”

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  • Timothy_wilkins

    I would think that libraries will continue to thrive as long as children's publishers put out board books, pop-ups, and the like. Granted I'm not a parent or in that area of publishing, but a lot of the parents of young children I know tend to be heavy users of the libraries.

    • We'll see, Tim, but my hunch is that board books and pop-ups are going to

      look pretty tame compared to what will be done with animation, color, and

      sound on color nooks and iPads and other tablets. That's a fact that has

      many implications for kids' book publishing.


      • Jessapo

        I can tell you this from experience – my 10 month old daughter will push away my iPad with downloaded “baby apps” on the screen, but she will crawl over and reach for a book and spend a few good minutes flipping it back and forth or listen to me read. My three year old is similar – she's seem some cute interactive ebooks on the iPad, but before bed she asks me to read her a book (or “reads” one to me). She has never asked for the iPad before bed.

        I don't think books are going away anytime soon. Too many people prefer that format and technology doesn't always boot up and work as expected.

        In my humble opinion, I think our society is currently experiencing a sort of techno-obsessed wave that just may come back around someday as people realize that sitting in front of a computer all day in a room totally by yourself is just not that fun. I fear sometimes we make our lives too difficult and complicated with technology. Think of all the steps it takes to access an ebook – paying for it, downloading, transfering to a device, etc. Nothing is quite as easy as taking a book off the shelf, pulling out the bookmark and settling into a nice cozy chair.

        Great dialogue though!

      • I have seen kids do exactly the opposite. My 6-year old niece walked up to

        the Nook Color at B&N and without any explanation or adult supervision,

        grabbed it and started playing with it.

        The thing to remember is that books are what they are and they have hardly

        changed in centuries. Ebooks and apps are in their infancy and they and

        their delivery mechanisms are improving every day.


      • Martin Kalfatovic

        This is what a colleague and I call the “Pat the Bunny” diversion. Kids of a certain age are always going to love things they can touch and chew on (like the great little book from the 1940s, “Pat the Bunny”. Can you build an entire profession around chewable cardboard? Maybe, but it's not librarianship. The library profession needs to act fast to reinvent itself and not rely on a perceived love of wood pulp and cardboard as a guide to the future.

      • Thanks for handling that, Martin. I agree with you.


  • Oleg K.

    More interesting than the prediction of the public library's/book's demise, elements of which have been circulating for probably the last few decades (if not longer), is the 10-15 year timeline. Why 10-15 years? I guess I'm not clearly seeing how 10-15 years will move us from point A to point B. The simple argument that posits 'ebooks' plus 'time' equals 'demise of public libraries' does not help me understand.

    • Jean Costello

      Hello Oleg – glad our paths have crossed again on Mike's blog. In my mind, a number of things make a 10 year timeframe realistic. One is the availability of alternatives the public finds valuable: ebooks; online reference and ask-the-expert sites; the many forms of readers advisory. Another is the growing number of good services to deliver personalized content directly to users. State and municipal budget crises are another factor … and financial problems will be with us for awhile. Lastly, libraries are struggling to articulate their value in the face of these changes and are promoting services that won't be needed much longer or do not have the aspirational quality the public has supported so deeply in the past. It's a disheartening picture. I believe we still have a chance to change this trajectory though with bold vision and rapid action.

      • Oleg K.

        Hi Jean, it's always a pleasure when your name pops up.

        First off, when you say alternatives, I see complementary services. There is nothing that says that the public library and ebooks, online reference or ask-the-expert sites are mutually exclusive. The fact is that with Google around, I thought ready reference was supposed to be out a long time ago, yet I still find myself answering questions that are a Google-search away fairly often. Other times, I am showing people the sites you mention. Perhaps in 10 years people will have learned what they can easily find online and where to find it, in the meantime, and for at least the next few years, I don't think we'll be seeing any lack of me passing on the results of simple searches.

        As for ebooks, my answer to you is similar to my answer to Mike, while genre fiction and best sellers may drive prices of ebooks down so far that price point will not prohibit access. I doubt that this will necessarily apply to the long tail. As my example with literary criticism for high school students illustrates, ebooks may act as supplemental resources for those who want to rent, buy, or pirate them (will students really do any of these for one lousy paper?), the type of access the library provides will not be replaced. At least not as long as teachers require credible sources.

        Budget issues are big in our minds, but I suspect that their prevalence today is overblown. Certainly, libraries are seeing less funding thrown their way, but I don't think it's necessarily disproportionate on average to the funding loss to most other city departments. And is it worse than it's ever been? I'm not so sure. Cities have always cut in slow economic times, and so they are cutting now. I expect funding will bounce back when the economy starts rolling just as it has in the past. So far, I'm not seeing clear indications that politicos are plugging in to the ebooks as an alternative to physical libraries argument. Finally, you've probably seen this article ( from Library Journal, but it says that library referenda for increased funding passed 87% of the time in 2010. Will this trend continue? I don't know. But my view of the future is colored by the present. Things can change quickly, but something rather dramatic has to happen for public libraries to disappear in a span of a decade. Currently, that dramatic happening is not taking place.

        When it comes to marketing, I can write a long and arduous response just to that both agreeing and also pointing to examples of the opposite. I will say that there are certain activities that have taken off in libraries that the current generation of politicos does not view as aspirational (i.e. video games). Still, libraries are learning to hone their message and project positive images better. As is clear in the 87% I cited earlier, libraries are organizing fairly well.

        That is not to say that we can't improve. That is always the goal. Everything can be made better. That's why I appreciate what you say in your talks and replies — it gets me thinking about what I need to do at work tomorrow to make my value clear to my patrons as well as the folks that walk by the library without ever peeking in. That's small-scale, however. I'm not sure what I can do on a larger scale right now. I expect it'll come to me over time, if public libraries are still around that is.

    • Of course, 10 or 15 years — or any other number — is a guess. I tried to

      be more specific in positing the world in which libraries make no sense: one

      in which most people have access to vast numbers of books mostly bundled

      through their connectivity charge (this could, of course, except the newest

      and hottest ones for which there might be some additional cost, but not

      much). And the time horizon is an estimate of how long it will take to build

      out that infrastructure and for the business models to change. There's no

      way that I know of to reduce this to a formula and if you said it would take

      five years less or five years more, I wouldn't have much grounds to argue

      with you.


      • Oleg K.

        Well, as it is there isn't much ground to argue either way since it's practically impossible to predict the future. What I'm particularly interested in is How these changes will take place. You mentioned that access to books will come “…mostly bundled through their connectivity charge…” which is in itself a huge shift from our current way of acquiring content (for our purposes, books and ebooks). It is in the 'getting to' the dearth of public libraries that is unclear to me. It is from that that one could more clearly see a time frame. As it is, many changes with copyright, information-seeking methods (I out myself as a librarian using this term :O) ), and technology must take place for your vision, or the piece of it that is clear from this article, to take place.

        To be frank, I think that with today's speed of change (especially when it stems ingenious entrepreneurial force), it is possible that the modes of access to certain types of content will shift from the library building to screen. Still, though I am a librarian, and love the library as it is, I am unafraid that publib buildings will disappear (maybe the will, maybe they won't). More and more, it is not the collection that becomes the draw, but the librarian. Certainly, we can buy books, or access to databases/ebooks (what's the difference?) — yet whereas the former, which is there right in front of us in the stacks is visible (simple to access, clear in its value), the latter requires a finger (or a link) to say “there it is.” Databases for citizens (as opposed to databases for academics) that public libraries subscribe to holds information that doesn't pop up on Google – unless a person knows about it, they won't find it. I know about it, and I show it to my patrons every day. I don't care if it is my library system that subscribes to it or the system in the next municipality over since *I* have a library-card in both places and will pull stuff off for my patrons if they need it. Some of this I could do in a coffee shop with a laptop. Maybe more and more as we mosey along into the future.

        However, not everything is online (or easily (read: affordably) accessible) nor do I think it will be in a decade or two, some information will always need a budget to pay for it. High school students that need literary criticism and don't have a public library (read: a print collection or appropriate database (Gale's Literature Resource Center), or knowledge of how to find good sources online, if they exist) will have to either buy their resources, rent them, pirate them, or resort to using Wikipedia, Sparknotes, or some ad-heavy fly-by-night summary site as their primary sources. Currently, the literary coverage on Wikipedia is inconsistent (see the entry on Winesburg, Ohio compared to the entry on Catcher in the Rye) and it's an encyclopedia, not literary criticism. This is just one example of how the public library serves one specific need of one segment of the population – there are countless others. For this service, there is no replacement. Again, there might be in the future, but literary criticism is not Dan Brown — what I mean is, since there isn't a mess of money in it, it's less likely to have the market-changing power that genre fiction might have when it comes to price point and ease-of-access. While there are Harold Bloom's (edited by,) ebooks currently available, it's not like these will force changes (or necessarily go along with them). Plus, ereaders will have to work differently for them since they're not read front-to-back like genre fiction, but that's a whole different story.

        Anyway, this comment has gone on too long already. In the end, I am unafraid because I do keep learning and adapting. Whatever happens, I will defend the resources that meet my patron's needs, maybe that will be a library building, maybe not. We'll see.

      • If it were easy to predict the future, then everybody would do it and

        everybody would always be right.


  • Fat Guy

    I jud

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  • 60plus

    Can I add a couple of perspectives? I'm a librarian but as I'm within a couple of years of retirement I'm pretty open to all possibilities. (1)In my (small community college) library, loans have declined to little more than half what they were in 2002, but the number of people using the library as a facility has increased by 15%. It's partly the computers, no doubt, but also there must be something about the spaces we offer, and maybe about the help available also. We keep on acquiring the best and most suitable resources we can afford (print and electronic), and rejigging our spaces as best we can to meet changing patterns of use. We've taken on board the coffee shop/information commons/group learning space/teleconference & webconference facility concepts of libraries as they arose – like most librarians I'm open to whatever developments can cluster round a key role of information hub.
    (2) I'm writing a book, partly from research done online, which gives me a foot in both camps. I can say confidently that there is a lot of “value adding” work in compiling a book, as opposed to locating information scattered across websites. No doubt there can be online databases which involve as much work as writing a book, and of course a book can be published in e-book format but I still see myself as producing a book, as an aesthetic object in the tradition of western publishing. I want a reward for my work in terms of a decent price for it also, and I expect most potential buyers will want it in a physical form. I will be more than happy for them to buy it online from an online preview, but it won't be a $9.99 download.
    Like I say, I'm open to whatever the future brings, as the customer is always right. However I suspect the predicted death of books and libraries (which I read of quite often) may be a trifle premature. Bookshops may go down but I'm not sure they will take libraries with them.

    • Books will survive far longer than *printed* books survive.

      And whatever you call the community center that doesn't have any books in it

      10 or 15 years from now, it wouldn't fit my definition (for this piece) of a



  • Stacey A

    Very interesting thoughts.
    I would say that there is an underlying assumption that print and electronic cannot live in the same time and space. If that were true, we would no longer have radio because of television.
    I think we will be surprised how long the physical books will thrive. I think they will have a place. How and when we read them will be different too. Reading is starting to, and will continue to, change with the integration of media, holograms, and interactivity.
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

    • The problem with the cooexistence of print and electronic is that print

      requires “critical mass”: minimum consumption to remain commercially and

      physically viable. As print shares go down, so do bookshops and pressruns

      and as their numbers drop, so does the overall viability of print.


  • Peter

    Meh, I think people are massively overestimating the amount of data that can be held digitally.

    Gordon Moore, of Moore's law fame, has already declared that the jig is almost up- the growth in data over the last 20 years has been made possible by shrinking the divider's in chips. Those dividers are now 5 molecules wide. So they can shrink in half perhaps one more time, then we're done- forever. Further data growth will only be possible by dramatic increases in mining- not in technology.

    The problem is, for all of this “cloud storage” stuff to happen, we don't need to just double the amount of data available- we need to increase it 45x. And that's just for the next decade.

    So storing data in “the cloud”- which really just means on a server somewhere- will become much more expensive soon.

    Paper, though, is cheap and plentiful. So books will survive. But people won't be able to read them.

    You can't store all that much data by printing words on a page. But you CAN store a tremendous amount of data by converting it into images, then printing those images on paper to be scanned when it needs to be recovered. People will read computers- but computers will read books.

    And the books will still be stored on shelves in the library.

    Now I just need to actually invent all that technology I just described. In the meantime libraries can just be used to store data dvds.

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  • Justin Tyler

    “The core purpose — the founding purpose — of a library, around which other things have grown, is to deliver access to printed words. “

    Well, I would argue that the core purpose of the library was to share books. We can have more if both of us to chip in $10 and a share a book rather than each of us spending $20… whether that book is print or digital. If we all chip in and share a library, we can all have access to a wonderful collection of material.

    However, non-creative business people will find this a threat, and our outdated copyright laws impede the basic human experience of sharing stuff. They quite simply need to come up with new business models for a digital and connected world.

    • Justin, what you say is “simply” (change business models) is not, in any

      way, simple, unless you have no interest in protecting the incomes of

      authors and publishers. That's what makes it complicated. There's no doubt

      that new tech makes it much easier to share things!


  • Daniel

    Mike, I certainly won't argue with your prediction about ink-on-paper books, or with your 10 to 15 year timeline. But I think what Becky and others are saying about the social value of libraries is hitting the mark. You say, “But that social value is built around the magnet of books in a building.” I say you're falling prey to the same inside-the-box thinking you find in others.

    The magnet of the library of the future is people.

    But really, that's what it's always been. We've just gotten fixated in that peculiar object, the codex, the printed and bound book. What's inside the book, however, is what's important. The words and images therein are means of communication between people – usually, an author and a reader. Libraries are foci of communication.

    Strip away the particular formats on library shelves, and what do we find? Here are three classic definitions of the library “brand” – Life-Long Learning, Self-Directed Learning, and The Life of the Mind. The contingent medium of the moment, or of the millennium, is not paramount. What's going on inside a library is an essential human activity. Just as we might say a gym is for the life of the body, or a church is for the life of the spirit, so a library is for the life of the mind. Libraries are a necessity for a vibrant community life. And with the innovations now taking place in “cyber” technology, it's exciting to imagine what libraries might be like in 10 to 15 years.

    Now, if you want to stop giving such a place the name “library,” well, who cares? I don't know what name you might replace it with, but that doesn't matter. Yes, such a place is a kind of community center, but one with a unique identity or purpose. Which is what libraries already are anyway, as Becky points out.

    What libraries are is buildings. They are specific physical locations. Note that a growing trend in mobile computing is Location Based Services. Physical locations where people get together in the same physical space will always attract us – because we have physical bodies, and yearn for the advantages of physical proximity with others – even if we're just sitting in a library reading from our mobile devices while others are doing the same without any verbal interchange.

    What a library provides is a “real” physical place for us to gather in, along with others doing the same thing – living The Life of the Mind.

    • If you want to redefine “library” from “a place that houses a lot of printed

      and other content” to “a place where people gather to pursue intellectual

      pursuits”, you definitely change the paradigm. And at least survival, with

      that definition, becomes conceivable. But, frankly, I still don't think it

      is likely. By 15 or 20 years from now your hologram will be in the room with

      me instead of a phone call, even on skype. The need to gather in physical

      spaces is, fortunately or unfortunately, going to diminish over time.


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  • Joe

    Well, you’re still working from the assumption that we’ll be using atrociously-scanned Google Books, or moral equivalent, to read every book published before this all-E era you believe will come to pass. You’re also engaging in sophistry in the phrase “have access to,” which could mean anything, but will probably mean a lousy scan of a book (designed in portrait) displayed on a monitor in landscape. (Then Google cuts off your “access.”)

    I’m just trying to understand how one could read 200 books a year, as I do, in this scenario, which is predicated on the death of the printed book. You note that newspapers had bumper profits in the ’90s, but newspapers are still here, aren’t they?

    Are you aware you have dug yourself quite a hole here?

    • You could say “newspapers are still here” but you wouldn't be talking about

      all the newspapers you had in the 1990s, would you? Have you been to

      Seattle, Denver, or San Francisco lately?

      And I don't know what ebooks you're reading. There are some old Google scans

      but they don't constitute very much of the ebook reading that takes place

      these days. And, perhaps you haven't noticed, but the amount of ebook

      reading is doubling a lot faster than once a year.

      I think I spelled out that my scenario was *imaginary*. That means it

      requires *imagination* to picture it. It isn't a world just like now 15

      years from now. If it were, we'd need libraries, just like we do today.


  • Davidsbooks

    Probably you are right (sadly), not because libraries aren't needed or important, but because local government is broke and getting broker. City after city is deciding that a public library is an unaffordable luxury (troy MI for one).

    • The state of public finance is definitely a component of my expectation.


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  • Brad King

    Well, I think you are probably right.  On the other hand, I can't think of a business that will not need to reinvent itself at least once over the next 15 years.  It should be an interesting and exciting 15 years for the librarians that are inspired to lead us to the next paradigm.  For those that want to hang on to the status-quo – not so much.

    • The point that other businesses are having to reinvent themselves over the

      next 15 years is well taken.


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