Posted on | October 21, 2012 | 3 Comments
Listen, I’m a realist.
Anybody can look at a number of factors:
1. Schools are eliminating libraries and library budgets. It turns out that maintaining a small warehouse of obsolete information in print costs money and isn’t an efficient use of floorspace. Schools, particularly colleges, are eliminating libraries from their campuses so they can transform that space into classrooms.
2. States (like Louisiana) are reducing if not eliminating library budgets. All states are having to make serious choices due to falling revenues and increased expenses. Libraries are a natural target.
3. North American consumers are driving ebook adoption. These numbers reflect consumer preference: more and more people want books electronically and not physically.
4. Consumption patterns will drive up ebook revenue into the foreseeable future. Increased demand will force book publishers into becoming software companies. Those who can’t do this will be acquisition fodder.
More facts from the American Library Association - an online survey of chief officers of state library agencies in November 2011 elicited responses from 49 of 50 states and the District of Columbia. Among the findings:
- Twenty-three states reported cuts in state funding for public libraries from 2010–2011 to 2011–2012. For three years in a row, more than 40 % of participating states have reported decreased public library funding.
- Only two states reported increased funding, but one did so with a caveat. This state had experienced two cuts the previous year, followed by a legislative action to reset its program to a lower funding level.
- Seven states and the District of Columbia do not provide state funding.
- Sixteen states reported there had been no change in funding from 2010–2011 to 2011–2012.
- Only nine states anticipated decreased funding for 2012-2013 — 21 % of last year’s respondents, compared with 37 % of the previous year’s. That may be the light at the end of the tunnel . . . or a train coming.
Thus, it’s really difficult to argue: changes in demand (consumer preference) will radically transform consumption patterns in the long run, offering revenue incentives to producers to produce more ebooks; meanwhile, cost constraints in maintaining physical catalog of books will force schools and municipalities into making choices against funding libraries; there are revenue incentives for ditching libraries all together.
This is fact. Now, for speculation.
I think the free market and capitalism will do what it does best: it will gravitate towards preferring the most efficient units of production and distribution to reward producers with profit; it will force the State (who isn’t influenced by the profit motive) to make more competitive choices; it will destroy what we perceive as a library. It cannot be a place where there’s a huge catalog of physical books, magazines, and newspapers. Maintaining something like that grains against efficiency and even what we see in terms of consumer expectations.
And realistically, can the government altruistically continue to fund libraries for the poor and “information-have-nots”? In an age of constrained revenue growth from taxes and a dwindling tax base? I’d seriously doubt it. Although libraries serve a grand idealistic purpose, somebody, somewhere, has to pay for it. Taxpayers are going to have competing priorities that’ll force hard choices, like, closing libraries, or, issuing municipal bonds, or, borrowing money to pay for it.
Now, does this mean libraries will go away. I feel, no. And NPR and Seth Godin wrote about this last year. Libraries will adapt. They must adapt. Where they can, they’ll transform themselves into cultural and information hubs where technology can be used by the public to access information, and, where legacy, physical books can be found. It’ll become a place to swap stories and information, drink coffee, and access electronic resources. Where they can, they’ll become places for community. Where they can, they’ll offer the “have-nots” a public onramp to the information superhighway.
Still, I’m realistically hesitant to think that all libraries everywhere will receive the funding and attention to transform in this way; again, see the story on Bobby Jindal’s approach for Louisiana, or, the Governor of the State of Indiana’s push to consolidate libraries. In light of rising federal, state, and municipal debt, diminishing tax revenues, changing consumer preferences, and substitution effects going on right now in the book industry, it’s extraordinarily difficult to perceive a future where warehouses of books are kept open to the public because “they’ve always been there”, or, “a lot of people still don’t own computers and iPads” (which is a funny complaint because 25 years ago nobody owned personal computers but more than 90-percent of American households own them today and have access to broadband capacity – I question whether libraries exist in their entirety to serve the poor).
My argument is simple: libraries must and will change; they won’t entirely disappear but that they won’t look much like a library looks today and there’ll be fewer of them; that the role of the librarian as a digital sherpa will become more important, helping to guide people to specific sources of information; that libraries will face increasing competitive forces that will force them to radically transform to remain useful and relevant.