Back when PCs first became really popular in the pre-Web days of the late 80s and early 90s, I kept reading (in paper books, magazines, and newspapers, of course) about how “paperless” society was going to become. If you were working in a library then, you probably remember how the coming of e-mail actually generated more paper than ever. Since digital files were prone to crash and disappear, if something was important, you’d print it out. We printed out everything, it seemed.

But in 2008, things are really changing. The pile of paper seems to be growing smaller. One of the biggest changes appears to be that newspapers and many magazines (especially news magazines) are shrinking, and that so many more of the things we read are on screens. This article from the New York Times, “Mourning Old Media’s Decline,” pretty much tells the story. The Christian Science Monitor, which every library I’ve ever worked in has carried, will no longer publish on paper. Time, Inc., and several newspaper publishers, are laying off lots of their staffs.

And you no doubt also saw that Google has settled with the authors and publishers who sued the company over its plans to make the content of the thousands of books they scanned from collections of big research libraries available to everyone… who’s willing to pay for the privilege. (Of course, Google plans to make access to the database available to schools and libraries as a subscription.)

I guess these changes are a good thing – we’ll be using a lot less paper. But what will a move away from reading things on paper mean for libraries? My thoughts:

We’re heading toward not owning the materials that people will read, watch, or listen to. Libraries will probably subscribe to media services that allow users to log in and read articles, watch films on their laptops or their big screen TVs, and listen to audio books and music just about anywhere. I still believe that lots of adults and children will continue reading paper fiction books for entertainment, but I think that “useful” books – textbooks, DIY guides, and most other nonfiction – will slowly vanish behind the digital sun, particularly as my own generation, the boomers, passes on. Newspapers and magazines will definitely move on to digital-land as soon as most people take up Internet phones and/or e-paper devices that let those publications be beamed to their readers.

What will be the place of libraries in this kind of publishing environment? I’m willing to bet that most people won’t want to pay for digital subscriptions any more than they do now, and that they’ll still be willing to visit libraries, whether 3-D or digital. But I think that if we keep working hard at stressing the importance of literacy, and our role in promoting it, that we can remain strong as… well… “literacy & fun” centers (I’m trying to think of a better term, but I haven’t yet).

I mean storytimes; storytelling; puppetry; read-alouds. You know.

Young children, especially, will always want someone to read, and, sing, and tell, and perform for them, and so will their families. Who else but us library folk will do this stuff without charging for it, and help make the printed word exciting?