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Libraries Will Become Museums Soon

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Books are Great

Coffee shops, tablets, and free Wi-Fi. Who needs books?

Personal libraries are increasingly found on small tablets in coffee shops and internet cafes. University students are discovering that the copy machine is a poor substitute for copying and pasting, and authors are learning that there are more than a few readers willing to spend $1 on an eBook who won’t risk $5 on a paperback. Individually these may seem like unrelated occurrences, but collectively they signal the end of an era.

That end is being hastened by Facebook and a campaign to connect the world to the internet. While that connectivity may seem to have little to do with print libraries, the two are very much intertwined. Print libraries are static repositories of information, while the internet is a dynamic information repository. Obviously a dynamic information resource is better than a static one, but there is much more to the issue than that. The internet is free, and libraries are not.

In fact, libraries are so expensive to run and maintain that everyone who goes into any library could be given a Kindle and there would still be money left over. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the yearly cost per student for a college library is about $500. That is on top of the yearly average of $1,200 for books and supplies. That means the average student will spend close to $7,000 on these costs over the course of a four-year degree program. For that price, every college student could purchase a tablet and a lifetime supply of eBooks.

No Books - No Problem

The value of books is entirely dependent on where you live.

Now consider the fact that more than four billion people in the world don’t have internet connectivity. This lack of connectivity is almost entirely due to economic reasons. When that two-thirds of the world population comes online, they aren’t going to be putting resources into print libraries. They’re going to be buying tablets and shopping online for free books, from free digital libraries.

For America, it is going to be another copper fiasco all over again, where the country tries to squeeze internet connections over first-generation copper phone lines while the rest of the world capitalizes on fiber. If the first world wants to keep up with the third world, libraries are going to close, or drastically change how they do business. There is simply no way around it. Brick-and-mortar libraries cost more per student than tablets, and online libraries are free.

The issue runs even deeper when you look just a little further in. Not only are the libraries around the world rapidly headed towards collapse as financially unsustainable dinosaurs. They have also largely outlived their usefulness as communal gathering places. There are amazing communities on the web. Some are mature, while others are developing or just finding their feet. Finding one committed to online reading, sharing information, or fostering literacy takes less than a second. These groups have entire libraries available for free. The only requirement is an internet connection.

A quick look at the astronomical growth of eBook sales is one of the best indicators available. Sales have exceeded $1 billion, and that number increases every year, while print book sales barely move in comparison. That statistic is not part of a fad, and it doesn’t represent an infatuation with tablets. It is an entirely new way of approaching book reading, and one that modern children are growing up with. Books are now to eBooks what board games were to video games 40 years ago. Fast forward 40 years and books will join chess sets in parks and retirement homes.

Book Fountain

Books, museums, parks, and fountains – all in one place.

This move from print books to eBooks will only accelerate. Numerous companies both in and out of the U.S. are already positioning themselves to sell or otherwise capitalize on the eBook market. One such site is gobookee.org, which advertises free books, and then links to Amazon for purchase. This is the way Amazon is increasing market dominance on an almost daily basis. With their access to books, tablets, and global distribution, it shows no signs of abating.

In the end, these are the core reasons why libraries will become museums, or at best computer centers with little coffee shops tucked in the back. Facebook’s global drive for internet connectivity will be what takes the legs out from under this already stumbling giant.

If you doubt the accuracy of this article or what it means, send an email out to 20 of your friends. See how many know where the public library is. Of those who do, how many have visited recently? The answers might surprise you.

Image Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons; Books; Book Store; Book Pile; Book Fountain

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About Henry Buell

A world traveled analyst, Henry has lived through political upheaval, revolutions, and war. He writes from a different perspective, with a passion for life, tempered by experience. More information can be found on Henry Buell's website.
  • bliffle

    The internet was ruined by commercial exploitation. Websites are poor sources compared to books. Content is replaced by glitter. And it costs too much. And crooks rob your personal info.

    Turn the internet over to the libraries. Commercial ISPs always oppose citizen favoring laws and librarians are the only defense.

  • bliffle

    Libraries should take over TV broadcasting. They are already repositories of informatioin and culture, and distributors as well. The existing TV stations have ingloriously failed in their primary requirement, as specified in the FCC charter, of serving the public interest. Nay, they only serve a small set of narrow private interests. Viewers are treated like cattle in a feedlot, required to consume whatever is put before them so they may be stripped of their wealth and discarded.

    It is no longer necessary to grant huge monopolies to private interests in hopes that some little bits of those monopolies will serve the public. We see that TV news programs have almost disappeared as their staffs have been reduced to almost nothing and demands for profit performance are laid on the news and public service departments, thus putting them in peril.

    The actual cost of building and operating a TV station has been reduced to almost nothing by the tremendous advances in electronics (largely financed by our universities and federal government and given away freely, even to private commercial enterprises such as TV conglomerates). Indeed, when I was desirous of starting a Low Power FM station, which is just a short step below a TV station) about 15 years ago, the equipment cost was trivial. Had I not been stymied by the “LPFM” requirement for a two year history of public service, today the SF bayarea would be blanketed 24 hrs a day by Bach Cantatas, free to all and free of commercials, on one of the old guard-bands of the FM allocation. As it is, I have to subscribe to the internet “Calm radio” for my Cantata fix.

    The actual spectrum space required by a TV station has similarly been reduced by modern compression and modulation techniques, again, created by publicly financed entities and available to everyone.

    There is simply NO reason to continue the old monopoly model of TV. The NPR radio stations have proven the economic model of independent ‘networks’ which simply aggregate independent content providers into affinity groups. Thus, the enormously popular “Prairie Home Companion” can be vended at varying rates to both rural and urban local stations so that there is an agreeable match between vendor revenue goals and vendee monetary capabilities. Libraries already exist and represent the broader world to local communities, so we should use them for TV.

  • Rob Knaggs

    The problem is that your concept of what a museum is seems to be as outdated as you think libraries are.

    • Every major dictionary and reference in the world, in any language,
      defines a library first and foremost as a place where books are kept, and a museum as a place where objects of historical significance are on display.

      Not surprisingly, libraries also primarily define themselves by books, while museums predominantly define themselves by history.

      Get rid of the books, throw in free Wi-Fi, and before you know it you’ve built yourself an internet cafe – not a library. Throw in some coffee, and you’re right about where the first sentence of my article ends.

      The only difference is that you’ve saved a few hundred thousand dollars, and missed the part where I mention my love of books.

      There is also the federal statistic, provided through a government website, listing university library costs at $500 per year for each student, or the public school statistic of about 19 books per student – none of which account for regular textbook costs.

      Anyway, nothing wrong with Gramophones either, but they turned into records, tapes, CDs, and most recently MP3s. Books went from hardback to paperback to eBook. Libraries just haven’t caught up yet, but when they do, what is going to happen to all that space where the books no one reads currently are?

      American Library Association Statistics:

      Library Usage Statistics:
      Total visits to libraries 1,571,048,000, or 5.3 visits per capita
      Total library circulation 2,462,187,000, or 8.3 items per capita
      Circulation of children’s materials 837,124,000, or 34.0% of total circulation.

      5.3 visits per capita, and that is an increase of 21.7% over ten years.

      You can further break down the numbers, or conduct your own research, but you’ll find that there aren’t that many people visiting the library, despite many having library cards, and those that do aren’t checking out that many books.

      My article is about books, and libraries becoming museums, or changing into something that isn’t a library any longer. Get rid of the books, and you need to redefine what a library is, just like the horse and carriage was redefined as an automobile when they got rid of the horse.

  • Nick

    There is always a clash between old and new with what sociology calls “cultural lag.” The hard part comes from the humanity for moving forward while not leaving behind our great heritage.

    • Thanks for the comment Nick. I agree with the cultural lag aspect. That is one thing I tried to highlight in the article, but too many people miss it.

      I’ve spent the better part of a decade in third world countries, and every one of them will happily spend a quarter million dollars on internet centers, hospitals, or computer centers, but not one will spend that money on a library. In fact, the libraries that most of them have are filled with dog eared old copies of books donated from other countries – like how to program in COBOL, as an example, or basic HTML from 1995.

      Most of the time they aren’t even in the local language.

      So, just like when America had a great ‘internet’ revolution, followed by the entire remainder of the world adopting new technologies and having far superior internet technologies, we’re at a point where the rest of the world will be increasingly computer literate, while we fumble with our books, where to keep them, and the seven or so times per year a book is checked out (and that is a misleading statistic, because some books are never checked out, while others are checked out constantly).

      So, I love libraries, and I hope they will evolve – but this article is a good indicator that there are far too many people who insist nothing is wrong with libraries (while eBook sales increase yearly, and print book sales remain flat).

      It is great to see someone like you who sees the heritage aspect and the need to move forward. I hope more people will see that too.


  • An interesting counterpoint to my article by a great writer. Intelligently written, thoughtful, and some great points. Recommended reading (especially if you disagree with me).


    I still think that when you take the horse out of a horse and carriage, you are left with a car, and when you take the books out of a library, you’re left with a community center – not a library.

  • Amanda Clothier

    Hi, Henry. Very informative, as well as unsettling, article. I think you’re correct that libraries must adapt or go the way of the dinosaur; I do think that many of them are attempting to do so. What this will mean for the future, I cannot say. Very sobering.

    • I too think that many are adapting, and I applaud the effort, but as I said above, take the horse from a carriage and you have a car. Take the books out of a library, and whatever it is, you no longer have a library.

      • Amanda Clothier

        Perhaps. I think what needs to happen is to redefine the role that the library plays, or should ideally play, in society. Is it a static repository of material or a center for information and knowledge management? The better that libraries are able to answer that question, the better they’ll survive.

        Also, I think it’s easy for those of us in the digital world to forget that many folks don’t have access to it, either from lack of computer hardware or lack of knowledge. For that reason, libraries can and should play a vital role in connecting that population to the future. If we don’t do that, we risk losing an entire generation. I saw an article earlier today about the under-preparedness of the American workforce and that gap is only going to grow unless we decide to change it. Libraries are only a part of that solution but I still believe, a critical part. That’s my sincere hope, at any rate.

        • That workforce underpreparedness is exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned the old copper internet problem.

          Now we have Facebook working for world internet (which is a fantastic thing), and those poor countries will have to decide – $250,000 for a library, plus salaries, or $50,000 for a huge internet center, and 20,000 Kindles, or 10,000 Chromebooks, for example.

          Glad to see / read more people like you who see the issue as something bigger than just libraries. And, I do love my libraries. The first ‘toy’ I ever bought my son was a book (which he promptly tore all of the pages out of). So, I think books will never go away as a learning tool for children – but for adults, they will likely become an item for the more affluent.

          I guess I should have mentioned magazine print sales and distribution statistics in my article too… 😛

          • Amanda Clothier

            I think magazines are very relevant to this discussion, at least from the point of view of a writer. The last statistics I saw (I think from 2010 or so) said that the magazine industry was, counter to popular thought, growing. I think that the concomitant fracture of television due to cable and satellite is a part of that – people expect content tailored to their specific interests (which plays hell with a company’s marketing plan, to be sure).

            I’ve been seeing predictions on the death of physical books for the last several years, whether from the point of view of the growth of ebook sales vs. print sales; or that of the use of the media physically and what consumers want. The disturbing part of that for me as an author and instructor is that the statistics I’ve seen on retention of the material as read online is very low (37% or so) vs. a physical book. Also, when I was getting my masters, one of the books for my class was available as an ebook – but only for a specified period of time. It irritated me as I keep my books, but I didn’t have the money to fork out over $80 for a supply chain book that I would not necessarily need later, even though I would find it convenient to refer to. So, in that sense, I watch the proliferation of ebooks with a jaundiced eye.

            I’d be hypocritical, though, if I said it was all bad. My coauthor and I have done very well as first-time authors and that, in my opinion, is due entirely to the fact that our first book came out in digital format first. We write to such a small niche-market that it wouldn’t have been cost-effective for the publisher to bring it out in print first, which we were still untried as a commodity.

            Great topic; you’ve really been making me think. I appreciate it.

  • bliffle

    I, too, like books. For one thing, when I fall asleep the book goes to sleep, too, gracefully.

    I’ve gotten to like audio books because they rest the eyes, and it’s so much like a radio format. And there are several sources of free audio books. I recommend “With The Old Breed” by Sledge, about slogging through Pacific islands with the Marines. Terrific tale for guys, with a good tough narration.

    • Thanks Bliffle. I will check that out. I am teaching my son to read, which is perhaps the greatest life experience I’ve had. He say’s b’uh, and gets his books. Then we read and interact with the pictures.

      Libraries disappearing doesn’t mean that books, or what books mean, has to go away, but if I were a ‘career’ dad, shuttling off to work every day, my actions would teach him that he could just interact with his iPad and a talking book instead of me. So I am happy to have the luxury my sacrifice of elephant employment affords me (working for peanuts, haha).

      I had not considered the audio books though, which I think he might really enjoy, as we read with different voices and act out scenes from the book, so there is a whole lot of room for imagination to take off with audio to (we don’t turn on TV in the house, ever, unless it is a family movie, so it will be a new thing for him). Of course, he is just 1 year and 3 months, so maybe when he gets older we’ll have a little more TV (doubtful, but maybe).

      • bliffle

        There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with TV as long as you watch only non-commercial channels, like PBS, Classic Arts Showcase (CAS) and Mhz Worldview, etc. In fact, they are a rich source of science and adventure information as well as great opera performances. It is the commercials that ruin TV by broadcasting ads annoyingly often, and by catering to the crude tastes and prejudices of advertisers, who seem unashamed to display what louts they are.

        Also, cable and satellite companies deteriorate signal quality by over-compressing the signal and destroying color, motion and spatial information of HD sources. Better you should get OTA signals from an antenna.

        Better you should teach your children good taste and give them curious minds than trying to control media, which they’ll defeat anyway.

        Incidentally, I just found an excellent new travel show, “The Spice trail, with Kate Humble”, on PBS of course.

        • My wife loves that program, and we do have Sesame Street and things like that for him to see. It is just the commercial content and the lack of control over the programming that keep us away from most TV.

          Until he gets to be about 6 to 8 and can ask me questions about things he might not understand, I want to keep him away from some media elements. I still remember walking in on my parents watching Soylent Green when I was 4 or so, and seeing all of the bodies of people. I spent the night terrified that my parents were monsters at night that ate other people. That was partially due to me walking in facing them, and seeing that they were enjoying the program, before walking into the room where they saw me and I saw all the bodies.

          My wife is terrible about that sort of thing, most recently watching a drama about the Ottoman empire, where I walked in to my son (1 year and 3 months old) watching a guy get beheaded – and he was visibly disturbed, but she completely missed it. Her mother (and I love her mother dearly, thank god), is even worse, plus turns the TV up so loud you can hear it in the next town.

          So definitely no commercials or random programs for him until he is a little older. Once he gets older, I want to teach him to explore all mediums to his heart’s content. I just want to make sure he is a little sheltered as a child.

          I’m pretty old fashioned too about TV. No TV at the dinner table (that is family time, to talk and eat and share stories about the day), and no TV when we are having discussions about anything serious.

          Plus, I suppose a large part of it will be a stumbling process, with advice from those more experienced than me in raising children, so your advice and input is appreciated. I hope my greatest accomplishment to one day be looking back and remarking on what a great children I raised.

          With advertising, I had a great English teacher my first year of college. Her name was Susan Crane, and she taught us to program our own media, and our own minds, which was an eye opening experience. It involved no print media that was not black and white, no television, and no movies other than one per week that had no commercials (skip the previews, right to the movie).

          At the end of the month we came into class, watched some color news programs she taped from the night before, and looked at some color magazines and newspapers. All of us (well, the ones who did the assignment properly anyway) were shocked at the differences we had from ‘real’ news and media, free from advertising and spin. It was one of the best lessons I had.

          Another great lesson she gave was going into the Blue Ridge mountains, and showing us where there were old churches and homes that had been destroyed by the government to make way for parks – forcing people out of their homes who were barely literate. If you ever saw the movie Nell, speaking to these people was like that. It was like they barely spoke English, and no one cared that their homes and churches and entire lives had been destroyed without compensation, so that the rest of us could have national parks. Strange, and deeply unsettling lesson. She was a brilliant educator.

          She makes pottery these days. There is a link to her in a thank you article I wrote to a few teachers I had: http://www.henrybuell.com/teachers-deserve-thanks/

          Thanks for your wisdom Bliffle.

  • bliffle

    The libraries should be the providers of internet access. The cost
    would be less, access would be more widespread (especially broadband)
    and content would be more profuse. It was a big mistake turning over
    ISPs to commercial oligopolies (did we learn nothing from the strangling
    restrictions of the old telephone monopoly? Apparently.).

    As a
    young person, when I discovered books, books of adventure, books of
    useful boy information (How To Pick Locks, and other useful subjects),
    it was like being set free in a new world. And, to my astonishment,
    there were big buildings full of books of every nature that I could read
    in quiet and even take home. What a deal!

    My fear is that our
    nice corporate internet will censor the library. Can a modern boy learn
    How To Pick Locks from this internet, governed as it is by adults,
    parents, old people, salesmen? Or has the internet totally been
    perverted to the purposes of a ruthless commercial monopoly bent on
    persuading us all to buy the egregious junk of modern life?

    • I too share the fear of excessive advertising, coupled with the ability for governments to censor what we read and do, but the larger fear for me is that in 20 years my grandchildren will be in a worn school library, while kids in Africa are reap the benefit of never having had a library for their government to fund, and have Facebook subsidized tablets with millions of free online books.

      Look at how bad we botched the internet. It is still awful, and extremely poor in many parts of the country. Head over to Hong Kong or Singapore though, and you can download gigabytes per second (literally, per second). The internet connections there are so fast that just one of them could probably power my entire small town.

      I certainly don’t want to see books go away any more than my ancestors probably didn’t want the horse and carriage to go by the wayside, but that is what technology does.

      Your suggestion of libraries providing internet is much in line with what I was leaning towards in this article.

      I left out a controversial statistic (which others are arguing with me about on Linked In), and that is that the ratio of books to children in public schools is about 19:1. Assuming a cost of just $10 per book, that means the school could have a kindle for every child, and access to limitless digital libraries. Plus, they could teach online, networked throughout the school, and update / grade papers instantly.

      It would not be a perfect system to start, but the beauty of it is that Amazon, Apple, and Google would fight tooth and nail to give free tablets to the schools just to raise children on their ecosystems. Schools would save hundreds of millions each year, and children would benefit immensely.

      As an added bonus, we could even pay our teachers more, resulting in a higher standard of education (and less of the absurd and meaningless test standards our current system is based on).

  • I love a good printed book. I can carry it with me, drop it, and even spill my coffee on it, and it still works. That said, my grandfather loved a good chess set, and I grew up with video games.

    Chess was the first game I ever bought for a smartphone, and it has been more than ten years since I played a game anywhere that wasn’t digital. I see this happening with books now. When I look at the cost of running a library versus giving every child their own tablet, it is hard for me to justify tax dollars to support a collection of encyclopedias no one I know reads.