Some Background on this piece: I heard about the Bexar County Digital Library earlier this year and wrote the following, which I never published. Now the library has actually opened, which you can read about here. Someone on Twitter asked what I thought about it, so I thought I’d go ahead and just publish the piece.
For me, today, the mission of libraries is more important than what libraries look like. I am committed to libraries because I believe there is no downside to a more informed, literate society. Literacy has many forms, which is beyond the scope of what I’ll write today, but for me, there are many ways for libraries to go about their missions and serve their communities.
That said, here’s the piece, as I originally wrote it.
In a BBC Radio series called The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Future, author Douglas Adams said, “Lovers of print are simply confusing the plate for the food.” I’m a book-loving public librarian in Salt Lake City and I agree.
My library has hundreds of thousands of print books, and print-based library work pays my bills. And yet, I’m not someone who will fuss too hard if paper books vanish. I love print books and I’ll be sad when/if they go, but when it comes right down to it, for me, libraries have never been about books. It’s the stories and ideas in the tomes that I need. I want free access to as many titles as possible.
The County of Bexar, Texas recently announced that it was authorizing an all-digital library, Bibliotech. Coming to you in the fall of 2013, the library will offer computers, study rooms, one hundred e-readers that can be loaned like books, and an e-book collection starting with 10,000 titles. Most articles I read about it made sure I knew that BiblioTech would resemble an Apple Store. This seemed crucial. I don’t have anything against Apple Stores but my life won’t be less full if I never go in one again. I can’t say the same about libraries.
My first reaction to the Bexar news was purely selfish: Yuck, I’m glad I don’t work there.
But it was the relentless reader in me who felt the true spasm of horror. I’ve read several books a week for the past 30 years and all I could think was, “Not every book is available digitally to libraries! Not every book is even offered digitally! If it’s all digital why do you need a building anyway! What kind of sick mind dreamed up this nonsense?”
To repeat: not every book is available digitally, and that matters when we’re talking about a library trying to represent the greatest breadth of ideas, in accordance with the interests of the community it serves. When a library’s format limits the choices it can offer, the possibilities for discovery are diminished.
I reread the Bexar article and relaxed; the digital library was going to be an “enhancement” to an existing library system, not a replacement. I love the idea of the digital library as an enhancement to existing services. I detest it as a replacement for the library, and all I have to do to reaffirm this stance is to walk through my library and laugh at the idea of replacing the books, activities, programs, and patron interactions with a soulless, sleek computer lab and a relative handful of e-books. I’m all for experimenting, but if there’s a clamor for this particular innovation, it hasn’t yet reached our community.
However, the enhancement angle made the whole experiment—and I was happy to see it being billed as an experiment— a lot more intriguing and less distressing. Maybe this would be exactly what the BexarCounty community needed.
Other librarians I spoke with that day, online and off, weren’t as composed. I work in a profession where hand-wringing and fretting is practically part of the job description. What do you think about Bexar? Are we in trouble? Is this going to happen everywhere?
My answer was and is: “Not yet.” Digital libraries might be (almost certainly are) the future, but the public—whose taxes pay for the library—will be involved in the decision. Despite what you might hear from librarians, the mission of a public library is to create happy patrons, not perfect jobs for the staff and their respective visions of what libraries should be. If the majority of library patrons want digital libraries and they’re willing to vote for it, that’s what’s going to happen. But I’m not going to worry until patrons start mobbing the reference desk, saying, “Good grief, I walk into the library and I see nothing but books! Get with the times! It could not feel less like an Apple Store in here!”
That day isn’t here yet. When and if it comes, I’ll support anything that truly enhances a library system and offers its patrons something they can’t get anywhere else. Or else I’ll need to get a new job. But this early into the experiment, I don’t see BiblioTech as a threat. I hope it becomes a wonderful service for the citizens of BexarCounty and teaches the library world something useful.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!
PS: if you’d like some further reading on print vs electronic books, here’s something Will Schwalbe had to say.