If you’ve been a librarian for more than a couple of years, you probably have memories connected to cassette tapes – circulating those book ‘n’ tape combinations; practicing your storytime songs or puppet shows or storytelling; or learning songs in your car on the way to work.

But those days are mostly over, and the cassette tape will soon join its brother, the 8-track, and its cousins, the 5 1/4 and 3 1/2-inch floppy disks and the VCR cassette, in the Misty Never-Never Land of Obsolete Technologies. This New York Times story, “Say So Long to an Old Companion… Cassette Tapes,” reminds us of what’s passing. It reflects on the things that made cassettes special, right to the end:

While the cassette was dumped long ago by the music industry, it has lived on among publishers of audio books. Many people prefer cassettes because they make it easy to pick up in the same place where the listener left off, or to rewind in case a certain sentence is missed….

Cassettes have limped along for some time, partly because of their usefulness in recording conversations or making a tape of favorite songs, say, for a girlfriend. But sales of portable tape players, which peaked at 18 million in 1994, sank to 480,000 in 2007, according to the Consumer Electronics Association. The group predicts that sales will taper to 86,000 in 2012.

That’s the end of the line for cassettes, but can you guess where cassettes hung on longer than anywhere else? In libraries, of course. Libraries accept and give up technologies reluctantly (why do you think it took libraries 12 years or so to get into video gaming?), and this story reminds us how perfect cassettes have always been for one important kind of library material:

…for audio books, the cassette is an oddly elegant medium: you can eject it from your car, carry it home and stick it in a boombox, and it will pick up in the same place, an analog feat beyond the ability of the CD.

In the 80s and 90s I spent a lot of time on the children’s room reference desk putting boys (and girls, but mostly boys) who were reluctant readers together with an unabridged cassette copy of books like Gary Paulsen’s Hatchet or C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe along with the book itself. “Have them read the book while they’re listening to the tape,” I’d tell their moms, and many of those moms came back, smiling and saying, “He read the whole book! Do you have any more of those tapes?”

Now those books are all on CD, and soon they’ll all be downloadable. I certainly don’t feel as if future generations will lose much by never having experienced the cassette. But I will miss them – I remember, as the article mentions, making mix tapes of favorite songs for girlfriends, and practicing lines for my puppet programs on cassettes. I also remember all those times my old cassette player pulled the tape out of the cassette (I had a car player that especially used to do that), and I’d have to eject that jumbled mess of tape carefully and wind it back into the cassette with my fingernail.

Do you remember doing that? Digital files aren’t quite the same…

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