Blazing Trails, pt. 4: Rocky terrain
Sorry for the delay in posting this. Like everyone else on the planet I got sucked into Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy. I’m a librarian, it goes with the territory! I’ll try to post a review at a later date, but now, back to our regularly scheduled program…
Based on my last post, you might think I’m going to tell you it’s time to ditch the Library Bill of Rights, or something. I’m not. I still believe that freedom of access to information is a necessity, and a durable core value. But I do think we’re in for a rough ride over the next few years, and that some of the things we have long associated with libraries may not be as durable as we think they are.
Here’s one example: privacy. This is another core value for libraries, and again, I think it still has merit. But our society is changing drastically on this issue. People are willingly sacrificing their privacy for increased connection to others. I’ve talked about this a bit on this blog, and I suspect it will be an ongoing topic for me. I think libraries still have a duty to protect the privacy of our customers, but what does that look like say, 5 years from now, when customers may not only have the ability to save their reading history in our system, but to share it with others? When some customers choose to make their information public, does that erode our ability to protect the privacy of others? In theory, it shouldn’t, but in practice it might. As the expectations of our customers morph, we may have a different role to play. I can imagine that there may come a time when lives lived fully in public are the norm and people think our protective measures are officious and unnecessary. What then? Do we stand our ground or move with the current of prevailing thought?
Here’s an even bigger shift for libraries: Amazon.com recently reported that ebook sales have outpaced hardback sales for the past three months, and that trend appears to be increasing. That’s HUGE. In a relatively short period of time, ebooks have taken hold and carved out a significant portion of the book market. And Amazon expects ebook sales to outpace paperback sales sometime this year. This has tremendous repercussions for libraries.
Most libraries, whether public, academic or private, are built in large part to store and provide access to physical books and other materials. Our facilities are designed for this purpose. Our Integrated Library System software is designed for this purpose. Our policies and procedures and a good portion of our work are designed to manage and further this purpose. How quickly is that going to change? I don’t know. I know we’ll have some time to transition, that there will be demand for printed books even after ebooks become the dominant format. But this is a much bigger shift than deciding when to stop ordering VHS tapes and focus on DVDs. How are we going to handle it? Are we prepared to make that transition at all? Most librarians I know have a VERY strong attachment to books that is deeper than just sentiment or nostalgia. Will we be able to transition along with our communities, or will we have to be dragged, kicking and screaming, away from our beloved print books? (And this is actually an optimistic scenario, assuming that the authors, publishers, retailers and libraries will be able to work out ebook rights that will allow libraries to offer free and easy access to customers. The options we have right now are not great. What if libraries get cut out of the mix entirely and DON’T have a viable way to offer free and easy ebook access to customers?).
And what about our buildings? If you are fortunate enough to be building or remodeling a library right now, and you want that building to be viable for 10-15 years or more, you have to consider now how the building might be used if we shift our collection focus primarily toward electronic formats. Do we want to merely adapt spaces that were meant to store physical materials, or can we envision a flexible space now that allows us to adapt every couple of years to changing needs? I’m concerned that we are too locked in – if we’re all using the same 3 library furniture vendors, where is the innovation going to come from?
This is partly what I meant when I quoted Annie Dillard in my last post. I’ve been walking around my library lately, just trying to picture it without most or all of the book stacks and I’m having a really hard time. I consider myself an “idea person” but this one has me a bit stumped. I think I’m generally very open to change and am a fan of ebooks, so I don’t live in constant terror of the great ebook takeover. But I still have a hard time conceiving a library that’s not built on books. Books are a “bearing wall” in our library, as in most others. They are part of our identity. I’m not sure I’m prepared to kick that wall out!
I know that we have a rough road ahead, and pretty soon we’re going off-road entirely and the ride will get even bumpier. We are working hard just to keep our seats, and that doesn’t leave a lot of time for looking ahead and trying to see what’s around the next bend. It’s a good thing, then, that we’ve sent out our scouts…