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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 [1]:

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 [2] that e-reader users absorb less than those who read on paper. One professor reports that over 92 percent [3] 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 [1],” 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.

4 Comments (Open | Close)

4 Comments To "Save the Print Library"

#1 Comment By AJ On July 9, 2015 @ 6:48 pm

Thinking of Fahrenheit 451 and a potentially dystopic future, my feeling is we should preserve print books for no other reason than that if somebody wants to destroy them it’s harder to do, and if you burn them it can be seen. E-books seem much more subject to destruction without drawing attention.

#2 Comment By Damoj On July 10, 2015 @ 5:11 am

That’s a rather myopic view, AJ. There are vast underground networks of free books being constantly shut down and reconstituted all over the world and easily accessible via internet. The legality is murky, but if people really wanted to read books, they could read, store, and distribute most books quite easily.

The reality is that there is no need to destroy or censor books, because almost no one is reading them. We’re a post-literate society, with all the dangers that involves.

#3 Comment By BethK On July 13, 2015 @ 1:46 pm

As a library director, the biggest problem facing libraries with this conflict is cost– e-books are pricey and appeal only to a limited number of patrons, but those patrons demand them. Print books appeal to far more patrons and are also in high demand. The problem comes in when budgets are stagnant or shrinking and more and more technology means less and less money to buy actual books. Aside from paying staff and building upkeep, most of the library budget used to be spent on books, magazines, and newspapers. Now we have to also find the money to pay for computers and their maintenance, internet, wi-fi routers capable of high-volume traffic, e-books, more access to outlets and plug-ins, televisions and players, tablets, etc. Patrons continue to use books and don’t want that to change, but the money has to come from somewhere. Unfortunately, in most small libraries especially, a huge portion of the budget is used to provide internet and computer access to those who otherwise couldn’t afford it, and that money is not going toward buying books and materials for large majority of our patrons. Libraries are up against a wall– continually being asked to do more with less. Patrons don’t want to see book and material purchases decline, but they also want e-books, databases, plenty of computers (newer ones), fast internet, comfortable couches and chairs, teen spaces, coffee spaces, meeting rooms, and additional open hours all on the same or less budget that used to go toward books alone. Something’s got to give. For our libary, one of those things was e-books. We couldn’t justify spending the amount we were spending for less than 2% of our total circulation– most of our e-book users have gone back to regular books.

#4 Comment By Mike Ehling On July 14, 2015 @ 5:56 pm

eBooks aren’t all that new, and Jeff Bezos didn’t invent them — he just popularized one particular reading device. eBooks been around since 1971, when Project Gutenberg was founded. One tremendous advantage to Project Gutenberg is accessibility to “orphan” public-domain works that might otherwise be available only in print-on-demand if at all.