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Save the Print Library

Ready for your library to go all-digital? That day may be coming sooner than you think—as the Washington Post reports:

Around the country, libraries are slashing their print collections in favor of e-books, prompting battles between library systems and print purists, including not only the pre-pixel generation but digital natives who represent a sizable portion of the 1.5 billion library visits a year and prefer print for serious reading.

Some of the clashes have been heated. In New York, protesters outside the city’s main branch have shouted: “Save the stacks! Save the stacks!” In Northern Virginia, the Fairfax County library system chief recently mused that the Friends of the Library were no longer friends — a feud fueled by outrage over a print collection that has shrunk by more than 300,000 books since 2009. The drop in the District is even more dramatic: Nearly 1 million books have vanished since 2009.

… “We’re caught between two worlds,” said Darrell Batson, director of the Frederick County Public Libraries system in Maryland, where the print collection has fallen 20 percent since 2009. “But libraries have to evolve or die. We’re probably the classic example of Darwinism.”

Batson’s words here reveal an unspoken—and flawed—assumption that undergirds many of these library transformations, and leads to a lot of misconceptions in the print vs. online debate over books. Namely, he’s assuming that technology always equals evolution, that embracing new technological fads is an essential part of progress.

But is this true? The new isn’t necessarily more durable or preferable—indeed, the new is often flimsy, unpredictable, and prone to unintended consequences. It has not yet withstood the test of time. In regards to book technology, specifically, a recent study has shown that e-reader users absorb less than those who read on paper. One professor reports that over 92 percent of students she surveyed “said they concentrate best when reading a hard copy.”

Technology, while an incredibly useful tool, is not necessarily better just because it is new. And the mobs of protesting bibliophiles who want their codexes back should be at least somewhat indicative of this. They’re not all reactionaries—indeed, as the Post points out, “One survey … found that just 5 percent of millennials read only e-books. Twenty-one percent of the millennials said they read more hard copy than e-books, and 34 percent reported that they only read print.” Even the youngsters still like print. They like e-readers, too, but their enjoyment of one does not exclude their use of the other. They’re “hybrid readers,” enjoying both mediums in different venues, at different times, according to need and the occasion.

It is also worth mentioning that this technological transition brings a considerable expense to the library: e-books are more expensive, says the Post, in part because “publishers fear large databases of free e-books will hurt their business.” Yet library’s budget spending on e-books has grown from 1 percent to 7 percent, while print book budgets have fallen from 67 percent in 2008 to 59 percent in 2015.

It isn’t obligatory—nor is it commendable, necessarily—for libraries to shun all new technological fads and tools. But it is important that they don’t shirk or shun the treasures of the past as they embrace new and promising gadgets.

Books have withstood the test of time for a reason: they’re excellent communicators, storytellers, and informers by their very medium. We love them exactly how they are. And some of us think that you don’t have to throw them out in the name of progress—indeed, such a hasty move may represent a regression, rather than an advancement. Rather, the trick is in preserving the best of the old, while finding ways to incorporate the best of the new.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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