Stacks of books are disappearing

IStock_000003968639XSmall Cushing Academy is replacing its library with TVs, a coffee shop and 18 digital readers. Why? Because students aren’t checking out books.

I can understand that if they library isn’t being used, it’s time to replace it and use the space wisely. However, there seem to be several assumptions here.

  1. Students aren’t reading paper books but they’ll read the digital books. Or perhaps they are thinking those few people that check out books will be happy with the digital readers. Maybe that’s why they only got 18 readers when they have over 400 students.
  2. Students aren’t reading so just give them the media (TVs and computers) that they are following.

Across the United States libraries are changing. They are carrying fewer books and more digital and multimedia options. From my perspective, it looks like we are reacting to a trend without understanding it. I’d like to know:

  1. Are people still reading books? (Maybe they are buying them instead of checking them out of the library.)
  2. If so, where are they getting those books and why do they get them from other places?
  3. If not, are they using the computer instead of reading?
  4. If so, what are they using the computer for?
  5. If they are using computers instead of reading books, and they aren’t reading on computers, do we want to fundamentally change what our libraries do?
  6. Is the purpose of a library to provide access to books or access to information?
  7. If it’s access to information, what does a library offer over the internet? Access to the internet for those that don’t have it at home? Help interpreting or sorting all the information out there?

I spent a lot of time in libraries growing up. As a matter of fact, I spent hours in the Cushing Academy library. (My parents taught there several summers.) Although I still love libraries and actually considered a job as director of our local library a few years ago, I no longer spend any significant time at the library.

Why don’t I spend time in libraries?

  1. They never have the books I am looking for. I think this is the Long Tail at work. I now hear about a lot of very specific niche business books. There’s not enough market for my local library to stock them. By contrast I can order them from Amazon and have them delivered tomorrow. (Or order it on my Kindle and read it now, just like I used to do at the library.)
  2. When the library has the book I am looking for it is usually a best seller and there is a really long wait for it. Then when I get it, I have to go pick it up immediately and I have to read it within a week – and I might be in the middle of another book. It isn’t convenient. I can order it from Amazon when I want to read it, have it delivered tomorrow, and turn around and sell it.
  3. It isn’t convenient. My local library is very tiny and doesn’t have any books I want to read. The closest decent size library is over seven miles away. Their online catalog is way worse than Amazon.com and they won’t put a hold on a book on the shelves. So if the book is in the library, I either have to drive up immediately or hope that nobody else checks it out in the meantime. If it’s not checked in, I have to wait for it and then immediately drive up when it’s available.

I think we spend too much time talking about how our libraries are going digital and how books are going away without stopping to ask what we want from our libraries.

I think instead the world has divided into people with different assumptions:

  1. those that think everyone will read books digitally in the future
  2. those that think reading is going away and libraries should evolve
  3. those that think reading is going away and libraries need to keep books and encourage people to read

I don’t think we know enough to know what our libraries should do.