Future of libraries


readius1A few days ago, The New York Times ran another story about big-time changes in book publishing, called “Bargain Hunting for Books, and Feeling Sheepish About It.” Its author, David Streitfeld, says that both publishers and bookstores – and among the bookstores, both independents and chains – are not doing well in the current shriveled-up economy:

Publishers have been cutting back and laying off. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt announced that it wouldn’t be acquiring any new manuscripts, a move akin to a butcher shop proclaiming it had stopped ordering fresh meat.

Bookstores, both new and secondhand, are faltering as well. Olsson’s, the leading independent chain in Washington, went bankrupt and shut down in September. Robin’s, which says it is the oldest bookstore in Philadelphia, will close next month. The once-mighty Borders chain is on the rocks. Powell’s, the huge store in Portland, Ore., said sales were so weak it was encouraging its staff to take unpaid sabbaticals.

Is this only a blip in bad economic times, or is it the beginning of the end for books as we’ve known them in the past? Streitfeld says that the economy has little to do with it; it’s the fault of all of us Internet-savvy buyers, who hunt for the best book deals online from places like Amazon and skip local bookstores. Then we resell the books or give them away as gifts when we’re through with them, further cutting into book sales. I’m not so sure this is the primary reason for the apparent “end of the paper book.” Many of us readers are simply spending way more time with our electronics.

And of course, people continue getting books, “free,” from libraries. ALA keeps telling people that the number of folks using libraries is higher than ever – although if what I see in the branch of the Austin Public Library where I work, which serves a middle-middle-class clientele is any indication, when you add together the number of DVDs in circulation to the number of books on CD that go through the door every day, they leave the building in about equal numbers compared to books with covers and pages. This goes for both adult and children’s materials. People working in branches that serve lower-income folks have told me that if they weren’t circulating DVDs and CDs, they’d barely circulate anything at all.

What does this mean for the future of books, and the future of libraries? It’s pretty clear that society at large continues spending more time with electronic media, which I guess makes me feel optimistic that the proportion of library budgets going to media – DVDs and books on CD especially – continues to grow.

But I wonder how libraries will deal with the growth of the all-purpose device that is coming to dominate the lives of more of us – the Internet phone. Here’s the Pew Internet and American Life project’s new study, “The Future of the Internet III.” As in its previous versions, the study focuses on several main possibilities as to what the Net will be like in 2020, soliciting votes from Internet experts on whether those possibilities will actually happen.

Here’s the first few lines of one such possibility, “The Evolution of Mobile Internet Communications”:

The mobile phone is the primary connection tool for most people in the world. In 2020, while “one laptop per child” and other initiatives to bring networked digital communications to everyone are successful on many levels, the mobile phone—now with significant computing power—is the primary Internet connection and the only one for a majority of the people across the world, providing information in a portable, well-connected form at a relatively low price.

Seventy-seven percent of the experts interviewed agreed this would probably be reality in 2020, and although I’m far from an expert, I agree, too. We’re much more likely to be reading books from a mobile phone than from specialized e-book-reader devices like the “Readius,” above. If Internet phones become the unquestioned kings of communication in a manner far beyond their role right now (which implies that laptops and other PCs will be well on their way to obsolescence by then), I’m wondering how libraries will deal.

Downloadable movies, audiobooks, and books? Yes, yes, and despite what I said at the beginning, yes. I don’t think books, whether for adults or kids, will die that easily.

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Amazon's Kindle e-book reader

Amazon's Kindle e-book reader

I’m still skeptical about their long-term prospects. But Sony and Amazon, makers of the Reader and Kindle e-book devices, claim that their sales are booming. It appears, at least if you believe Sony and Amazon, that e-books are finally (finally! after nearly 10 years of waiting) taking off. Here’s a quote from the New York Times article, “More Readers Are Picking Up Electronic Books,” that gives a nice overview of the state of e-book readers at the end of 2008:

For a decade, consumers mostly ignored electronic book devices, which were often hard to use and offered few popular items to read. But this year, in part because of the popularity of Amazon.com’s wireless Kindle device, the e-book has started to take hold.

The $359 Kindle, which is slim, white and about the size of a trade paperback, was introduced a year ago. Although Amazon will not disclose sales figures, the Kindle has at least lived up to its name by creating broad interest in electronic books. Now it is out of stock and unavailable until February. Analysts credit Oprah Winfrey, who praised the Kindle on her talk show in October.

Sony claims that it has sold about 300,000 of its $400 Reader devices. And publishers are claiming that sales of their e-titles have grown from 1 percent to 2 or 3 percent in the past year. Woo-hoo. But, seriously, does this mean that e-books are actually on the brink of success?

I’m still not convinced that e-book readers will hit the big time until costs of the devices come way down. Why pay $350 or more for a device that holds books you have to buy for $20 or so? These are books with all kinds of protections plastered on them, ones that you could buy in 3-D paper format, at a discount, for $20 or less, and then give to friends or resell? You can’t do anything with a Kindle or Reader book after you’ve finished it. I don’t think that the devices offer $350 or $400 worth of extra features.

The article also says that the Kindle is “most popular among 55- to 64-year-olds.” If we boomers are the ones who find it most appealing (of course, we’re also the ones most likely to have the cash to buy an e-book reader device), that doesn’t bode well for their future, I think. It’s younger users that power a technological fad.

But maybe all will change when the prices for the readers come down. Hey, Amazon and Sony, where are the e-book reader devices that cost under $300 and have more cool features that appeal to the gaming generation?

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?

This New York Times article, “Using Video Games as Bait to Hook Readers,” by Motoko Rich, intimates, at least to me, that media companies are now headed down that road that leads to a largely bookless future.

Here’s the kernel of its message:

Increasingly, authors, teachers, librarians and publishers are embracing this fast-paced, image-laden world in the hope that the games will draw children to reading.

Spurred by arguments that video games also may teach a kind of digital literacy that is becoming as important as proficiency in print, libraries are hosting gaming tournaments, while schools are exploring how to incorporate video games in the classroom. In New York, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation is supporting efforts to create a proposed public school that will use principles of game design like instant feedback and graphic imagery to promote learning.

It tells about several about-to-be-published, or just-published, books that tie in with video games, such as Scholastic’s “Maze of Bones” series.

Rich touches on the core question that has not yet been answered, namely, do video games, even if they include print, promote the kind of literacy that encourages young people to read printed books? While there are plenty of tech folks who promote computer literacy as a skill that fits right into print literacy, others say that the two have little to do with each other and that while a young person may spend hours or weeks trying to master a game’s minutiae, almost none of a video game’s skills carry over into the very different experience of getting lost in a book.

Reading this article, I could picture it all in my mind: Wait until we baby-boomers all kick the bucket (in 2058? or 2060?), and books will have been well along the way to dying. By 2020, they’ll all have been replaced for younger people by videogame/film/holographic worlds (and if you don’t think holographic TV is coming, read this) that folks can control and manipulate. A few retro folks of the upcoming generations will gravitate to books, but they’ll be seen in, say, 2068, as we see 78-rpm record collectors now – quaint. And maybe e-book readers will finally be cheap and truly functional by then. So, by the 2050s, or earlier, enjoying reading a printed book may be no longer relevant, since everyone will get their entertainment and information electronically.

Am I wrong? I hope I am. Should I care? As a booklover, it’ll be hard to watch. I wish I could be around to see what’s going to happen in 2068. Will there still be libraries by then?

We keep hearing about how the U.S. economy is struggling. Those of us in libraries know how, during those times that hurt the majority of us, libraries tend to be particularly hurt. Here’s a story from the San Gabriel Valley Tribune about the fortunes of the County of Los Angeles Public Library (COLAPL). It’s like old-home week for me, because I grew up among the branches of the COLAPL. One of my first jobs as a teenager – way back in the late 60s – was at the Claremont branch of the COLAPL.

The story says:

As it is, Los Angeles County Librarian Margaret Donnellan Todd said, libraries never fully recovered from the mid-1990s, when the state chopped their funding in half by taking local government money to balance its budget.

Increased foreclosure rates and fewer home sales now are pulling down local property- tax revenues, which the county’s library system depends on to pay for about 60 percent of its budget, Todd said.

“For us in the county, it’s all about money. We never have as much of it as we would want to do all the things we want, but that’s always been the history of libraries,” said Todd, who oversees libraries ranging from the tiny Sorensen Library in West Whittier to larger libraries in Duarte, Rosemead and West Covina.There are county libraries in 51 cities and nearly all unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County, Todd said, “and we’re always struggling to make sure we have enough money.”

Ah, that takes me back. I worked as a clerk in the West Covina library for a while when I was in college. Yeah, back in 1971 and 1972.

But it makes me sad to see how libraries – institutions that have been around for over a century in so many places in the U.S. – continue to struggle financially. I feel that part of the problem, in the first decade of the 21st century, is how difficult it is for so many librarians to explain exactly what it is that we do. We’re not telling everyone that we do literacy – we celebrate literacy, and we support literacy. Literacy is what we are and what we do, every day.

Last week, the U.S. Census released figures showing that due to the massive migration of Hispanic families into this country, in many places the majority of children under 5 years old are combinations of Asian, Black, Native American, and – especially – Latino. This change in population is particularly noticeable in the South and West, and in states in which Latino migration is highest. The story in the Washington Post explains it this way:

As with minorities in general, immigrants tend to be younger than non-Hispanic whites and still in their childbearing years. As a result, in five suburban Washington counties, more than half of children age 4 and younger were minorities when the annual Census Bureau survey was taken a year ago.

Demographers have long predicted this change; it’s the breaking wave of what the U.S. population in general will become by the middle of the 21st century, when no single ethnic/cultural group of Americans will make up more than 50 percent of the American people.

The biggest reason, however, to be paying attention to this shift in the numbers of children under 5 is that with huge amounts of children entering school, many of whom do not speak English well, educators are concerned about the levels of literacy these children will achieve in American schools:

… although most Hispanic children younger than 5 are native-born U.S. citizens and therefore eligible for government health care and other benefits, research indicates that if their parents are not U.S. citizens, they will be less likely to claim assistance, said Michael Fix, director of studies at the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.

“All of this really reinforces the importance for counties to increase their investment in early childhood development now,” Fix said.”If you don’t make that investment, one of the penalties you pay down the line is that you have kids in school who don’t speak English well and whose overall performance lags behind.”

Fix pointed to studies indicating that as many as 75 percent of elementary school children learning English as a second language were born in the United States.

“Even more worrisome is that over half of the English-as-a-second-language learners in high school were native born,” Fix added.

It’s pretty clear that the new generation of librarians in both public and school libraries should be learning at least the basics of Spanish, as well as learning how to work with ESL kids. Helping these children become literate will become a major challenge as their numbers grow over the next 15 to 20 years.

Update: Here’s a story on CNN.com that explains the population changes we can expect by the year 2050 in more detail.

This morning I visited LISNews and found a post, “The future of libraries – no MLS needed?” written by Christopher Kiess, an Ohio hospital librarian. Kiess speculates whether the nature of library work, public library work in particular, has changed so significantly that the MLS degree won’t be seen as important for work in a library much longer.

Here’s his core argument:

The library is becoming less and less of an entity requiring an MLS degreed person to manage it. As cataloging becomes outsourced, clerks become prevalent and we see a variety of other disciplines working in a library, the MLS becomes devalued. I had a respected colleague suggest to me not too long ago that a public library requires an MBA more than an MLS. I would agree. What is at issue here is the skill set of the librarian and that is a central factor in whether we can save our profession.

Kiess says that as long as people in the Google era conceive of the major function of a librarian as helping people find books, CDs, or DVDs on the shelf – even if it’s the “right” book, or CD, or DVD – they’re not seeing us as much different from the non-MLS’ed clerks at Borders. The difference comes in the full variety of services we provide. Librarians who serve youth can make the argument that because libraries are about literacy, and that because we are trained in the ages and stages of literacy, we can offer advice and counseling to parents, teachers, and children that goes beyond what a bookstore clerk can provide.

In the 21st century, every child needs to know how to read well to be successful. The pressure on our schools to make all children literate will only grow as the years pass, and libraries play an essential supporting role, even when the Net seems to have stolen away much of our old “homework-support” function. We’re the ones leading the way in setting babies, toddlers, and preschoolers on that road, and we support kids’ reading through the summers. (And – see below – gaming may increase our future role with teens.) I think the argument will, in the long run, be tougher to prove for librarians working with adults.

That means, of course, that we all need to be making noise. We need to be offering programming that pulls literacy together with the materials in our collections. Youth librarians need to be offering “literacy counseling” to parents who come in and ask us questions about the best materials for their children. We need to be more than the greeters that some public libraries seem to be moving their staff toward.

Oh – and here’s a great piece of news that’s exactly the kind of thing that needs to happen. I’ve crabbed a bit in the past about why we’re doing so many gaming programs in libraries for teens, when the relationship between gaming and literacy isn’t – at least for my curmudgeonly self – clear. Here’s an ALA press release announcing that the Verizon Foundation has awarded ALA a $1 million (!) grant to develop best practices for gaming activities in libraries. Here’s what it says:

“Gaming is a magnet that attracts library users of all types and, beyond its entertainment value, has proven to be a powerful tool for literacy and learning,” said ALA President Loriene Roy. “Through the Verizon Foundation’s gift, ALA’s gaming for learning project will provide the library community with vital information and resources that will model and help sustain effective gaming programs and services.”

I hope we do get some good ideas and programs out of this grant. Anything that builds the link between literacy and libraries in the collective mind of the public is exactly what we need to demonstrate that librarians do essential, professional-level work.

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