Sunday, April 18, 2010

The End of National Library Week

Last week was National Library Week in the USA.  So today marks the end (the end of the week --  hopefully not the end of the library).   It seems to me that we're overdue (that's a library joke) for a look at that great community institution.  I love libraries, especially good-sized, well-stocked ones.  I love them for their books, not for their meeting rooms or their public internet access or their DVDs or even for their used book sales.  I don't think I'll love them for their e-books in the future.

I mistakenly thought Ben Franklin created our library system, but though he was a great guy, he missed the boat on this one.  Actually, the boat hadn't been invented yet.  Franklin helped create a precursor:  a library company where those who bought stock in the company could borrow books.  It turns out we have Peterborough NH to thank for the first town-supported public lending library pretty much as we currently know it.  Hurray for NH!  And (miniscule) federal funding for libraries only began in 1956.  Wow.  I thought the feds had been involved from early on.  Here is the history of the American public library from The Straight Dope.

Libraries (and publishing) have dealt with some ground-shaking changes in the past:  paperbacks, for instance.  Cheap books!  How could the publishing industry survive when people would no longer pay for hardcovers?   The publishers survived paperbacks quite well, thank you, and the libraries grew, as did readership in general.  Now we have the arrival of the e-book wave.  Will it wash the library from our landscape?  Is the end near?

I assume that printed books will continue to be made available for a considerable period of time after e-books take over.  Decades.  I think this my personal preference leaking through.  I like paper.  Yes, it's inefficient, dirty, wasteful, polluting, and irresponsible to pulp forests for paper that all too often winds up in the landfill after one read.  But I like my books.  And an e-reader isn't a hands-down winner on the environmental front.  Yes, you can carry an entire library on your e-reader, and enlarge the font (one of the few real advantages of an e-reader that I might make use of), and you can get new books without waiting and without driving to the store.  But I like my books.  Did I say that already?  I also like not having to send my e-reader in for repair, or having the battery run out, or having it fail and lose what I was reading.  Paper books are fairly well protected against a host of failure modes.  They can still be ruined by fire and water, but your e-reader won't handle those well either.

I like the smell of books, the feel of books being held and carried, even the sound of books being opened or placed on a table.  I can still remember the smell and dry dusty feel of a book I took out of the library in my teens:  a book that hadn't been checked-out for over 30 years.  [It was "Night Flight" by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, and it was a wonderful book -- its long wait for me to check it out was probably the result of its having been mis-shelved.]  That was a discovery I was not likely to make anywhere but in a library.

So what happens to our public libraries when paper books are gone?  Will the companies that are trying to take over the book world even allow digital books to be lent out anymore?  Sure, the libraries have special lending powers granted by copyright law, but there's no guarantee that their power to lend will remain.  Make no mistake; what libraries currently have is power, special power for the good of society.  Companies like the Big A and the Big G (and the other Big A, for that matter) aren't set up for the good of society -- they're in it for money.

Do libraries become museums no one ever visits?  What do we do with all that shelving?  How about the imposing buildings that house all that shelving:  buildings that never have anywhere near enough parking spaces?  They won't work as convenience stores -- they've got lots of shelving, but not enough parking.  Hmmm.  Not enough parking, but....

We could turn them into drive-thru hat-checking facilities.  The cars wouldn't stay in the parking lot (it's a drive-thru, after all), and those shelves would hold a lot of hats.  Think about it.

Okay -- scratch that.  Maybe, for a while at least, they would become paper book recycling centers.  Books are often considered hard-to-recycle (though this week I found out that we can now put paperbacks in our weekly recycling carts), and, well, the library building's already full of bound books that have become unnecessary.  But after the recycling effort has petered-out because all the books are gone, what then?

Anyone for firefighter training?

But seriously, where will people drop off their obnoxious kids for the afternoon?  Where will their obnoxious parents talk loudly on cell phones about highly personal legal / health / hygiene issues while leaning a grubby shoulder against the "No Cell Phones Allowed" sign?  Where will people choose to stand in a long line to check out their books with a real live person rather than whiz through the self-checkout? Where will teens rush the ultra-slow-motion elevator while the 60-somethings puff their way up the stairs in half the time?  What will all the "friends of the library" do for fun on Tuesday nights?  It could be the end of the world as we know it.


  1. First of all, you're nuts.

    Second, there's no reason they couldn't turn libraries into computer based spaces. Replace the shelves with computers and suddenly you have a place where all the obnoxious people you mentioned can still hang out. You could even bring your e-reader and plug it into a port. It'll give you the book you want and two weeks later it will automatically delete itself, no overdue books! The best part about this new system? No need to remove that elevator!

    Third, you're still nuts.

  2. 1) Agreed.
    2) I think that the need for publicly available computers is lessening (slowly) all the time. It doesn't sound like a very long-term future for the library.
    3) Still agreed.

    I'm having chest pains.
    I LOVE my local community library. I'm there at least twice a week. I love the activity of children attending story hour or searching the shelves looking for the perfect book or movie. Okay. Maybe some are a little louder than they should be, there's no accounting for some parents, but they should feel comfortable at the library. It's the first step in developing a love of reading. My library hosts tutoring sessions and after school the tables are filled with learning. The bank of ten computers often has a waiting list. And yes, for a while I attended a women's writing group in one of the meeting rooms. I love that men can meet for chess club and women for scrapbooking. The community library has evolved and will continue to evolve. I agree with Tbiz. I see the library of the future providing wifi and docking stations where people can link up their digital devices for downloads. My library already provides downloads for audio-books, and like Tbiz said, somehow, through the mystery that is modern technology, when your loan period it up the story automatically returns to the library inventory.

    I don't want to think about the day my local library is no longer open, for that will be a sad day indeed.

  4. BTW -- I don't mean to imply I don't like meeting rooms, children's story times, DVD loans, etc. I just mean that for me, personally, it's all about the books.

    Okay, and the reference librarians too. Where else could I have found out the proper name for the shell-like covering of an apple pip? And I had two librarians practically fighting over who could find the answer first! (The shell turns out to be the "ovary", and yes, this is the kind of question that keeps me awake at night.)

  5. Just for the record: I can confirm that those questions DO keep him up at night. The last one was, "How do they fit pears into the can?"

  6. How do the slices get aligned properly so they can zip into the can at high speed? That was the real question. Your phrasing makes it sound silly, like "Well, obviously they don't assemble the can around a bunch of pear slices while they're suspended in a magnetic bottle powered by a giant nuclear reactor!!!"

    I learned a lot of cool things about industrial fruit and vegetable handling. Orienting odd-sized things automatically (and simply) is incredibly fascinating low-tech stuff.