Libraries and the digital future

Between shrinking state and institutional budgets, growing e-book sales, and the widespread availability of information on the Internet, there’s a lot of talk about what place libraries have in today’s—and tomorrow’s—society. Traditionally, public libraries have (seemingly) existed primarily to provide patrons with print materials. Is there a place for them in the digital future, or are they destined to disappear? I’d like to take a look at some arguments against the necessity for libraries and provide some alternative analyses.

E-books: Obstacle or opportunity?

There is no doubt that e-book popularity is on the rise; in February of 2011, e-book sales topped the sales of any other format. However, even when e-book sales do exceed total print sales (read that press release carefully, because they don’t yet), this does not mean that there will no longer be any demand for print books. Moreover, libraries can be lenders of e-books, too, provided that publishers like HarperCollins revise their lending restrictions. (Ideally, I would further stipulate that the issue of licensing versus ownership be firmly resolved firmly in the direction of the latter—and as consumers, we should demand this—but I’m not holding my breath. As an alternative, there’s a lot of talk about subscription-based models like those currently used for journals, but those present their own set of problems.) In acknowledgment of this reality, driven no doubt by consumer need or demand, Amazon recently announced that Kindle users will soon be able to borrow e-books from their local public libraries (although there are some drawbacks). This finally puts Kindle owners on the same playing field as owners of a Nook, Sony Reader, Kobo, or smartphone—and, given the popularity of Amazon’s device, this move provides libraries with a whole new population of users (or at least a new population of users in the digital medium) to serve. In short, libraries need to stop looking at e-books as competitors and to start looking at them as an opportunity to reach a population that is currently being underserved (to their credit, many are already doing this)—and, in turn, publishers must acknowledge that library loans don’t compete with book sales so much as amplify them.

The false dichotomy of reference services versus ubiquitous information

Library Journal recently featured an article postulating that reference is dead and that libraries should hire more geeks—i.e., IT personnel. While the latter half of that statement seems true (my experience in library school has not been encouraging: some of my classmates and professors are technologically savvy, but a worrisome number appear to be either terrified of or at least uncomfortable with technology), it doesn’t necessarily follow that reference services are not relevant to the current and/or next generation of patrons. On the contrary, the sheer vastness of the information landscape makes having a strong reference department all the more essential. Reference librarians bring with them the experience and skills necessary to sift through the flood of data to find trustworthy sources that match patrons’ information needs. Where the problem really lies is in getting patrons to actually use the reference desk’s services. Libraries should be focusing on patron outreach, not eliminating genuinely valuable departments. With so many voices questioning the necessity of libraries today, it behooves librarians to educate the public on the services offered. Librarians and book lovers already know that libraries justify their own existence; what we must do is demonstrate libraries’ value to everyone else.

The simple truth

Despite popular (media) opinion, the book, in any form, is not dead—in fact, people are now reading more than ever, as this poll out of the University of Southern California demonstrates (whether we approve of or recognize the value of what people are reading should be reserved for a different discussion). Californians appear to be reading regularly, and those who own e-readers have found themselves reading even more than they did previously. If we accept the idea that libraries exist primarily to provide patrons with books (which is a narrow-minded view, but bear with me), then it should already be apparent that they are not obsolete—and, in fact, the USC poll tells us the single most popular source for books is the library. The current economic climate only makes this free (well, tax-funded) repository that much more necessary.

Now, let’s pretend for a moment that we all agree that libraries are super-awesome-fun places that are great to have, but we still have some doubts as to their necessity. With so many other essential social services vying for increasingly limited funding, can we really justify funding libraries? In short, yes. For one thing, libraries are the only place that underserved, underprivileged communities, who are already suffering from worse unemployment than other populations, can get internet access to apply for jobs (not to mention the other education opportunities the library provides them). In this way, the library helps justify its own funding, acting as fuel for the economic engine. Libraries also provide unique services based on the demographic the serve—take, for example, Colorado libraries’ efforts to help immigrants prepare for citizenship exams.

Perhaps most importantly, libraries provide our society with intangible benefits. It’s this point that makes those of us who love libraries so very passionate, but it is also the most difficult point to definitively express and therefore to argue to nonbelievers. Still, whether or not access to information is truly a human right, I believe that we have a moral obligation to provide it—and to provide it freely to all. LibriVox creator Hugh McGwuire asserts that community libraries serve four purposes:

  1. to disseminate books and information for free or close to free
  2. to archive information
  3. to provide a community space for people to interact around information
  4. perhaps: to give people the tools necessary to manage information in a sensible way.

Try to name one other institution that provides these services; you won’t find one. I also doubt that you’ll find many people who, upon reading that list, see no value whatsoever in those services. Where would the public turn to for them, if not to libraries? And what would it cost? It’s time that we as a society acknowledge the value of libraries—and fight to retain it.

Further reading


  • You make a good point–no matter how media and information sources evolve, we need to remember the essential role of libraries will essentially stay the same: connecting people with information.

    Btw, fantastic blog! I’m just starting library school and I’m really interested in book preservation. How did you get started with bookbinding?

    Marissa K. MasonJuly 26, 2011
    • Thanks!

      I got started in bookbinding about the most basic way possible—I bought two books after examining a number of them on Amazon. Then I looked through those books for tool and material recommendations, and bought those. It really was just that simple mixture of reading up on something to get a feel for it while at the same time being willing to throw myself into it somewhat blind. It probably helps that I’ve done this before; in college I taught myself to knit, also by reading a book about it, buying some needles and yarn, and having at it. (Granted, bookbinding has required a more significant financial investment.) More recently, I’ve also done this with baking bread from scratch and brewing beer. I know this approach wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s always worked well for me so far. It’s certainly slower than taking classes, but it’s significantly more affordable, and there’s a certain satisfaction in being able to say that (with the help of some written resources) I taught myself.

      I should also note that the book repair class I’ve been taking over the summer, as well as a workshop I’ve signed up for in August (“Practical Origami,” where we’ll be making books and boxes, amongst other things), have helped/will help move things along.

      Jackie SmithJuly 26, 2011

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