On The Future Of Libraries: A Response To Walt Crawford

I was just digging through my "write file" and ran across this essay I apparently wrote way back sometime during the first week of November last year, just before I started my leave from work, and completely forgot about. It looks like it's more or less finished, so I guess I'll just drop it in here even though it's not exactly timely.


Let me begin with this quote:
""books" is what 69% of 3,348 respondents think of when they think of libraries. ("Information" was a distant second at 12%.)" [It's All Good]

Now let me summarize what I meant to say in my last essay. We will reach a critical mass of people who think libraries (I guess I'm thinking mostly public, but maybe academic too) libraries are useless in the next decade. One part of that mass will not need DVDs any more because they get them "on demand." Another part won't have any reference questions any more because they have Google et. al. Another part won't need books any more because they can just download and read them on their e-Book reader. Another part never liked libraries. Another part don't support any public institutions. Some others want lower taxes and will sacrifice libraries for that goal. There are probably other groups I'm overlooking. Only a few of these groups are new, but it's a list that will continue to grow. All these separate groups (not working together) will form a significant threat to libraries. Many of these groups have been around for decades, but I'm not sure I see any evidence there's an up and coming new pro-library group to outnumber them. More and more people I talk to just don't see value in libraries any more. I speak mostly from personal experience here, rather than having any real numbers to back me up.

So on to some responses to Walt's ideas.

"because I can safely project an audience of more than 200 million Americans who grew up with books, continue
to read them, and will be around in 20 years."

I'm not saying people will stop reading, though I'm not sure Walt was saying that either, but I'm saying a significant percentage of that audience will largely replace books with bytes. Not all, but enough will no longer thing of books when they think of libraries to make support for libraries dwindle further. They will largely stop buying new print, they will largely stop going to the library to check them out, and they will simply download them. For a large group of people it'll be easier, faster, cheaper and better for them to do it this way. Even some people who grew up with books will use electronic editions of some kind because they will be convenient and easy to use.

"libraries never have been "The Information Place"—and they've never been the place most people fill their "daily information needs," … "Once again, the library never had that role for most people. It can't lose a role it never had."

Great point, and one I hadn't considered. I'm not sure it changes anything for me, but it's certainly something that will stick with me. Information is a distant second when it comes to libraries for most people. Since there are only a select few people who use the library of "information" does it matter if Google et. al. replace that need?

"In 1992 we were told repeatedly that by the turn… "
What I wrote:
"The technology exists now to realistically begin moving away from print, not because it's just the latest gizmo fad, but because it's going to be cheaper, faster, easier, and just as stable as, and just as good, if not better than, print."
I think we've reached the point where we'll start to see usable mass market readers within a few years, I'll say by 2010 at the latest. The newest reader from Sony seems to be the first in the new generation of readers.

"Who are these "millions of kids" abandoning books?"
What I wrote was:
"All those things you think are so great about print are the same things millions of kids think [are] completely wrong."
Another one of my poorly worded sentences with an abstract idea half way presented poorly. What I meant: I don't think (most) kids will look at books in the say way adults do. It's those kids that will make up a substantial part of that critical mass. Rather than feeling any nostalgia for print, they'll feel it for their first e-Book reader, or their first laptop. I don't look at records and feel anything like many boomers do, and I don't look at my first iPod with any feelings like my 15 year old niece does. There will be no nostalgia for print for a significant number of people who drive spending trends within a decade or two. Having one book to lug around won't interest them when they can carry a reader that's the same size and holds 12 (or 1200) books. I don't think they'll abandon them, I think they'll never feel any connection with them in the first place. Most of their reading will be done on some type of computer.

I really used LOCKSS as an example of just one way digital, when done correctly, is safe. So lots of stuff keeps our stuff safe, that is, redundancy and backs ups, and redundancy. If done right, digital can be just as safe as print. LOCKSS is just one method, with a great catchy name that explains things very well.

Walt makes another good point I didn't consider when he points out we're in trouble (I'm guessing Public Libraries here) if we don't think about 40- to 90-year-olds. Are they going to be all that different? Can we serve 90 years olds and 19 year olds at the same time? I'm not (nor have I ever been) a public librarian, so I can only pretend to understand what happens there. Nor do I think I'm 100% sure I understand where support comes for publics in terms of votes. This is certainly an interesting area that I hope is being studied.

"Teenagers change as they become adults…" That's true, and a great point. I can't really speak to how the average person growing up now might change over the next 10 or 20 years, though I can hazard a guess. They won't feel much of a connection to printed books, libraries or librarians. The rest of what I've written here explains why. And again, I have no studies or real data to back me up. I just think that there is a large (and growing) group of younger folks like this.

So let me close with one more quote, because I'm a very lousy writer, and also don't have many original thoughts, and I think if someone else says something it'll sound more important than if I say it.

"A library is almost a dinosaur now because everyone has a computer and can use the Internet to go into any big library and get any information they need, That's a lot of money to spend just to check a book out."

If I'm right, and if enough people start to think like this we're all in trouble. A big part of the problem is there is so very little being done to market ourselves and to change that way of thinking.


Do you want to be?

Blake, It's unlikely that I'll write any real response to this. You should look at the rest of the Perceptions report, beyond your quote; among other things, I think it makes the case that Kids These Days really aren't abandoning either print books or libraries..and that most people support public libraries even if they don't use them much. You see a bunch of things happening based on what you believe will come to pass. I don't see them happening based on all the evidence I can come up with. At that point, we're arguing belief states, and that's not a very interesting argument. So I'll let my previous commentary stand as a response to your new comments as well.

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