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Books Are Dead; Now What About Our Libraries?

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We’ve all heard it before; printed books are dying a slow, agonizing death and ebooks are the wave of the future. The Sony eReader and Amazon’s Kindle were at the forefront of the revolutionary wave and now every tech company seems to be jumping in on the act.

Despite those old purists stopping their ears and clinging to their dog-eared, yellowed tomes of yore, the end of the printed word is nearing. It may take a few decades, it may take a few years, but the inevitable will happen (barring some doomsday scenario of worldwide economic crash that cuts off all electricity). 

But one subject that hasn’t been as widely talked about as the end of the brick-and-mortar bookstores will have wide implications across the country: the fate of our libraries. 

Personally, I stopped using libraries years ago, once I discovered the joys and conveniences of ebooks. I’m just as certain that quite a few people won’t even bat an eyelash as libraries will be forced to close both state and nationwide, as they lose funding and fall under the dominance of the digitized world. But this isn’t happy news for everyone.

Unknown to a large number of people, libraries are more than just a collection of dusty books that patrons check in and out and old geezers frequent. Libraries have become community gathering places, free Internet access for the poor and the only source of intellectual knowledge for those living in the outer fringes of society who can’t afford even the cost of an ebook. Losing our culture of libraries will be an enormous blow to a large portion of our population. 

But it’s happening. 

Martha Nichols of Salon recently wrote about the increasing irrelevancy of libraries. “What’s the purpose of libraries — really? To be a community gathering place? To promote lifelong learning? To help users navigate the information flow?”

As ebooks and the Internet gain prominence, libraries are finding it hard to stay relevant. Thankfully, some libraries are taking the initiative. In Oregon, where I used to live, the Beaverton City Library has started an ebook lending system, allowing patrons to digitally check out books without having to get up from their computer desk. Solutions like these give hope to library lovers around the country, for good reason.

But as digital library lending gains prominence, book publishers are quickly capitalizing on the new wave. Earlier this year, Harper-Collins decided that libraries can’t lend out an ebook more than 26 times. Why the magical number of 26, you ask? Because, apparently, that’s how many times a regular printed book can be lent out before it needs to replaced… yeah, ridiculous. 

But as ebooks gain popularity and publishers profits begin to fall (it’s getting harder to fleece the public when the average price of an ebook on Amazon is $9.99 and less) then you can expect more publishers to take similar measures. Instead of finding a way to stay relevant in the increasingly digitized world, these publishers are scrambling to make the quick buck, before they fall into ruin like Borders

Obviously, other solutions will need to be found if our libraries are going to survive the incoming wave. Otherwise, brace yourself as library closures hit the country, thousands of jobs are lost, and a large part of our cultural heritage disappears into obscurity. 

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About Noora Chahine

  • Jason

    I just love how you insult your readers by calling them old geezers. Why does damn near every person who is talking about the so called death of books always insult the people who read traditional books? It doesn’t make you sound smart or trendy, it just makes you sound like a jackass.

  • Guy Mercer

    I am not one to judge, but I consider this article to be cretinous in the extreme. Books have lasted for centuries; what gives you the right to pronounce them ‘dead’ in some temporary and juvenile burst of ill-placed enthusiasm for some new digital fad. You have lost all of my respect. Kindest regards, Mr. Guy Mercer

  • N. A. Lee

    To all those who say, “The end of the (insert supposed outdated technology here) is near” – they are nothing more than prigs, not pigs, making self-righteous statements so they feel special for adopting a new technology early in its development. While consolidation in the market place by new technologies makes certain aspects of life easier, it will never completely eliminate a previous technology, especially if it has a major cultural foothold.

    Despite the ease and availability of electronic music software to create compositions, people still learn to play the piano or an old wooden guitar, even if they don’t become musicians. The airplane, car, scooter, or even Segway makes transportation easier, but quite a few people still ride a bicycle or walk with their own two feet to get places. Fast food restaurants provide a convenient source of sustenance, yet most people still prefer to cook a meal and sit down with their family to eat. I remember people saying ten years ago that online shopping will eventually replace the brick and mortar stores for nearly everything. While online purchasing has lead, in part, to the closure of stores such as Circuit City and Comp USA, Best Buy was able to capitalize on their failures and expand. Also, I have yet to see the end of the local department stores and grocers in my area.

    I do agree that most community libraries will shut down because of advances in electronic media, or turn into nothing more than Red Boxes for books. Major metropolitan libraries will simply fill in the gaps and expand in their absence, becoming massive warehouses of knowledge and learning. I would also agree that paper books will not be printed by the millions in the future as learning tools or for casual readers who prefer cheap paperbacks, but it will still exist for those of us who are connoisseurs of good literature who wish to have a signed copy of an artist’s work, much like a collector of paintings prefers to have a real Picasso. I doubt anyone a hundred years from now will pay $1,000,000, based on current inflation, for a first edition of the e-book 1984, versus the hardback first edition signed by Orwell himself.

    Ultimately, it is free markets, cultures and old habits that dictate whether a technology goes extinct, not wishful thinking. Also, remember this rule: The older and simpler a technology is, the harder it is to replace or ultimately supplant. Humans can fly long distances in airplanes, but we have yet to replace our use of the primitive wheel in ground transportation.

  • Anna,

    I completely agree; I spent a large part of my childhood in libraries and I owe a large part of my learning to them.

    Despite my excitement about ebooks, elearning, etc, I have to wonder if we’re looking at all the pros and cons here.

  • Hey Noora, great article. There are odd cultural aftershocks to the loss of libraries. The hours are already cut way back and funding cuts are always imminent.

    How we will explain libraries to future generations if we lose them? There’s a beauty and nostalgia to the hush of a library.

    Thanks for an insightful article.