“Bookless libraries” and the death of the paper book

In an article from San Antonio, TX, a county judge is working to open a “bookless library.” This is a swell idea, and I support it fully. But before some of you younger folks that I know go into a spiral about “see, we were right, the paper book and public library are dead,” please do read the whole article. Specifically:

“It’s not a replacement for the (city) library system, it’s an enhancement,‚Äù [Bexar County Judge Nelson] Wolff said.

“People are always going to want books, but we won’t be doing that in ours,‚Äù Wolff said.

Twenty years ago, when I was getting started in libraries, the death of periodicals was considered imminent. We were going to be getting that content monthly, on a CD, that we’d mount on some honking big jukebox server in our library. The consortium I was working at at the time spent a stupendous amount of money for a six-disk server; it was the Next Big Thing. Suffice it to say that, as an industry, our crystal ball was totally broken on that, and I don’t think that the prognostication has gotten any better in the intervening years.

The impending implosion of public libraries and paper books has been predictedin some circles for a while now, but I have a firm belief that it just won’t happen, and there’s a really obvious (to me) reason why: the have-nots.

E-books and the technology youmust have in-hand to utilize them are dandy things! I have a tablet, myself, a Samsung Galaxy Tab 2 7.0, and it is a wonderful tool for reading books, and many other things that I do. I also use an open-source software called Calibreto manage my collection of e-books on my PC. But I had to pay hard-earned wages for that little tablet, and unless you work on a job where they’re standard-issue, you will, too.

With so many Americans–and evenmore people globally!–living in poverty, they’re not going to be able to, or even want to, spend their limited resources to purchase that technology. If they do, it’ll be a values decision between that, and food and housing and other things that are needed. Until tablet PCs and free e-books become as ubiquitous as a Social Security number is here in the US, public libraries and paper books will continue to be needed. For my non-US friends, the SSN is given to you at birth, for free, automatically. It’s the law. You get the picture.

I’m not knocking digital content, at all! For discovery purposes, it’s great to have things digitized, and let computers do the searching. It’s gentle on resources, convenient, fast, lightweight, and the price of the technology is getting more-reasonable all the time, while the technology continues to improve. Absolutely we should be digitizing content, and releasing new content digitally, at as great a speed as possible.

Public libraries will continue, in my opinion, to provide hugely-valuable services to their communities, and the rise of digital content will not displace the paper book for many, many years to come. If we force that to happen sooner, we do so at the risk of some of our most-vulnerable citizens. And that’s not what libraries–particularly public libraries–are about.

[Originally posted by D. Ruth Bavousett]

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