In most of my blog entries, I adopt one of three primary personae: “Interested Observer” (and in that I include my occasional fanciful visits with Bob Brumfield, Steve Ward and Ozzie, and other humorous takes); “Fan” of one thing or another, including literature and travel; and “Expert,” on those few occasions when I feel authoritative enough about anything to render a point of view.
As we continue our observance of National Library Month today, I’ll play all three roles simultaneously. I’m certainly an Interested Observer of the fate, future and destiny of libraries; I’m a bona fide Fan of libraries; and, at least insofar as I’ve used libraries in my profession, I have some moderate bibliotectonic expertise. Instead of making statements, expressing enthusiasm or delivering expertise, I’ll merely ask questions. If you have the answers, please step forward with a comment (I can’t see you if you raise your hand), or call up the highest-placed librarian you know in your district or city, and let them know what you know, because they have the crystal ball and the Tarot cards out on the table, trying to divine their future.
Libraries are beleaguered, and, if there were an Endangered Species list for public institutions, they might be on it. They’d certainly make the “threatened” list, if not the outright “endangered” category, meaning that they’re on the way to extinction if something doesn’t happen to reverse the trend.
Once you consider the Library Question, the qualifying questions come thick and fast: how long since you last visited your library? Do you know where your local library is? Where was it on the night of August 28th and who saw it there? (ok, ok, I’ll try to stay on topic). Can you think of a book or photo or fact or movie or song or other information source that you CAN’T find online and for which you need a library? Can you answer that previous question if I end the question with the word, “free?” Do you know anyone who’s ever been to the library? Do you know anyone under the age of (30? 20?) who’s ever been to the library for anything except a “study session” or because his girlfriend was there? Would you still go to the library if they didn’t have those Internet terminals or free WiFi? WOULD you go to the library if they had that free WiFi AND coffee?
The smart-aleck Under Western Skies wants to add, “Have you ever actually read a book?” but I know my audience, and I know that all of you have. Oh, yes, I’m certain. It might have been Amazing Tales #15 when Spider-Man made his first appearance and comics changed forever, but you read books.
Will libraries be ultimately doomed by the inherent anti-intellectualism of American politics, losing their funding in this trying economy as cities, counties and states cut even core education programs to pay for streets, sewers, utilities and the City Manager’s vacation home on Ibiza? (adjunct question: does the existence of thousands of public libraries argue against that accusation of anti-intellectualism?)
Some of the questions are so open-ended that you cannot be expected to answer them, but, like it or not, directors of libraries and the city councils, boards of trustees and whoever controls their budgets ARE having to answer them: will eBooks completely or essentially replace printed books? As search algorithms and online knowledge indexes expand, will librarians become superfluous? Will libraries become merely large, comfy buildings full of WiFi signals and a local franchise of Stumptown Coffee, and maybe, after 8 p.m., cocktail bars where we can meet to tweet?
Say! Here’s a question: will the New York Times’ new subscription model catch hold, inspiring — nay, REQUIRING — every major publication to CHARGE for electronic access in order to compete? What if the Washington Post and USA Today and the Chicago Tribune and the Atlanta Constitution and the L.A. Times plus People, Time, Newsweek PLUS Twitter, Facebook, Gawker and TechCrunch all decided to charge for access to their STUFF? What would that do to or for libraries (which could offer access to an institutional subscription via their WiFi network or their Web site)? Hmmm? Amazon and Barnes & Noble and Apple charge for what you download from them, don’t they? What does that mean for libraries? Is that a miniscule opening into which to drive a wedge against the gathering burden of subscription media on top of your home Internet service, phone service, WiFi access, cable or satellite media, Netflix fees and Apps Store charges?
Restating my opening questions, have you investigated your library’s online resources, catalogs, learning tools, indexes, encyclopediae, dictionaries and other research tools? Are they offering what they should offer in order to remain relevant and active (no fair answering if you haven’t investigated them)? What might libraries do in that realm that might stem the tide of the often poorly researched or, at worst, self-serving, self-aggrandizing, self-published puff pieces that populate Wikipedia?
Right now, I’m reading one book on my Kindle and three printed books that are stacked by the bedside, one of which came from the library and two of which I own. Will that mix change? What’s your personal bedside stack look like? Is your eReader stacked there along with The Magic Mountain, “Wired Magazine” and the latest Scott Turow novel, plus that copy of National Enquirer you picked up because of the photo of Lindsay Lohan and Newt Gingrich caught sneaking off for a weekend in an alien spaceship?
Do libraries need saving? Do we need them? Can they be saved? Will you, ten years, fifteen years from now think, “Dang, I always meant to read Anna Karenina, and my eReader’s on the fritz. Think I’ll bop over to the library and just get it out.” What if, when you got there, it had been replaced by a Costco parking lot?
What will happen?
© 2012 Brad Nixon