Atrium of new Indianapolis LibraryEven though the Internet has been a permanent fixture in most public and school libraries for nearly fifteen years – and most libraries I visit seem to be plenty busy – it appears that an awful lot of people are still wondering whether it’s time for libraries to shut down permanently because, of course, the Net can now take care of everyone’s information and reading needs. How much longer (and you must imagine the Monkey rolling his eyes here) will we need to deal with this question?

A long time, I guess, if we use an article by Erika D. Smith of the Indianapolis Star as our guide. In honor of the opening of the newly remodeled Indianapolis central library, she asks us whether it was worth spending all those millions on. (The illustration above is of the library’s big new atrium. For more about the new library, look here.)

So far, Smith feels that the city’s Library is doing a pretty good job as “a destination,” a place to go to interact face-to-face with other folks, rather than encouraging citizens to cocoon at home in their jammies with their broadband-equipped laptops. But she also quotes Michael I. Shamos, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, who suggests that in 25 years or so, technology will have progressed far enough that libraries will at last become irrelevant. Smith says:

Libraries have seen this coming, and many have shifted their collections away from books only. The Indianapolis-Marion County Public Library system says books account for 66 percent of its circulation, DVDs 20 percent, music 7 percent, audio books 5 percent and VHS tapes 2 percent.

Well, yeah, but all of those non-book formats she lists will soon be gone, to be replaced entirely by downloadable files. If a lot of us library folk get our way, in a few years users will go to an Internet- or cellphone-based connection to download all the music, movies, audiobooks, and instructional materials they might currently be borrowing as a disk or a cassette tape. Music and movies and that “learn Spanish in 30 days” set will no longer exist as physical objects – you’ll download them to your laptop or cellphone and keep them for a week or three, after which they’ll evaporate.

But as I’ve said before, I don’t think that books will be so pleasant to use digitally for a long while.

Maybe my head is up a tree or buried in the sand, but I’m not too worried about the future of libraries, both as buildings and as a service. One of the most important reasons we’ll need them is that 1) there needs to be a place to bring young children to be exposed to the pleasures of literacy – and maybe I’m wrong, but for kids six and under, I don’t think technology will ever do that job as well as a real person – and 2) the library is a great place for a community to come together and improve itself without having to buy anything.

Am I wrong? Maybe, but I sure hope not.