Friday, December 28, 2012
Back to the demise of libraries and paper books
Yesterday, for the first time in almost of month of recuperation from major surgery, I went out for a short ride in the car. Of course, being who I am, we went to the Mesa Public Library. What was notable about this very short visit to the library? Nothing, that was what was notable. My wife returned a book to the automated book return where a conveyor belt pulled the book into the depths of the library and read the microchip embedded in the book to credit her returen. She then went to the shelf where the books on hold were posted and found the one with her printed reserve notice, took the book over to an automated check out desk where she placed her library card on the designated square, the machine read her card, showed her account with the book she had just dropped in the slot returned. She then put the newly acquired book on the square and the book was automatically added to her account and the chip in the book was changed to show that she had checked out the book. This was important because then we walked out of the library passing through the security that checked to see that the book she was carrying had been checked out.
Now, why did I say there was nothing notable about all this? Easy, we didn't have to talk to or ask questions of, or wait for anyone. This whole process took place with automated equipment. Now, here is the question: What difference is it to me if I get in my car, drive to the library, pick out a book, check the book out of the library, drive the book back home, read the book, then go through the process to return the book by driving back to the library etc. than if I check out a book electronically and read it on my iPad or Kindle?
The difference is simple. No drive to the library twice.
Why would I go to the library to physically check out books? The "library" part of the experience, as I reported above, was entirely neutral. Nothing happened. No interaction with librarians, other patrons or anything except having to brave the gauntlet of people in front of the library trying to get us to sign petitions or assist with other causes. So again, why should I go to the library?
This is a serious question, not just hyperbole. One reason presently is that many books are not yet available directly through online library loan to ebook readers. But that is changing rapidly. There is no question that nearly every book presently in the average public library will become available through some form of online library loan service in the not too distant future. So are my days of wandering the stacks over? From my own standpoint, the answer is yes. I see no reason to take the extra time to physically go to the library to check out a book and I have been checking out digital books for some time now, as I have reported previously.
So what is the future of the library? News articles have reported for more than a year that ebook sales online have passes paper book sales. See Amazon: consumers buying more Kindle eBooks than print books. Current news articles claim an absolute decline in the number of paper books sold and a virtual abandonment of print sources such as newspapers. See In Changing News Landscape, Even Television is Vulnerable.
May I suggest that libraries still have and always will have a viable place in out society. Assuming they can transition into centers for learning and resources and acquire a social component. If my trip to the library is like the one I had yesterday, why would I go? But if the library has classes, seminars, social gatherings (even restaurants) and other amenities, then they become a place for people to go to get help and support rather than just automated supermarkets for books.
As genealogists, we are consumers of books and records. Access to these records is crucial to advancing our research. As long as the resources presently locked up in libraries become more available through digitization, then the trend will ultimately have no net effect and may make many more records available. But if the libraries close, what will become of their collections? What of all the materials that the cities and states don't seem to have the funds available to digitize. The loss of the Alexandria Library in ancient Egypt could become a footnote to the loss of documents do to the closure of our libraries.