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