Stacks of books are disappearing

September 4th, 2009 in Books, Kindle

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.

9 Responses to “Stacks of books are disappearing”

  1. Bob Bobson says:

    I think the problem with the way we are thinking about it is that we are confusing literature, the content that we are discussing, with books, which are just a delivery medium. Whether people read literature in a book, or on a website, a kindle, an iPhone, makes no difference.
    It really irritates me when I see “book reviews”. Are you reviewing the paper? The construction of the spine? What you’re discussing is the literature.
    It’s like if someone invented a new network protocol and then everyone moaned that nobody was “reading TCP” anymore.

  2. Bob Bobson says:

    Why do you care about stacks of books disappearing? If the text went i’d be worried, but it’s not going anywhere. People are just reading in different ways. If you happen to want some text in a book, perhaps we could use print on demand.

  3. stormy says:

    I’m not worried about the stacks disappearing. I’m worried that people are getting rid of them without understanding why people aren’t using them.
    Maybe they aren’t using them because they aren’t allowed to bring their coffee into the library. I don’t know. But getting rid of them because “people prefer to read digital media” seems to be an assumption based on very little fact.

  4. stormy says:

    Agreed.
    And what bothers me is the assumption that once the protocol is digital, everyone will start reading again.

  5. The physical plant and the payroll are squeezing out the collections budget. San Francisco’s library is probably the worst offender: they built a $140 million palace, with a cafe and plenty of space useful for fundraising events, that actually had fewer feet of shelves than the previous building. (And when I looked for a woodworking book, they had one that covered table saws before the introduction of commonly used safety devices and techniques. Apparently the deluxe atrium is more important to the library board than the readers’ fingers.)
    The collection, for a library, is like the schedule for a transit system. Run too few buses or acquire too few books and you lose the mid-range customers who have the option of driving or buying the book.

  6. John M says:

    I still read books, and much like you, get the majority of them from Amazon for two reasons. One, again like you, the library usually doesn’t have what I want and second because Borders Express usually wants an arm and a leg for the same book I can get on Amazon for a lower price, many times even including the shipping charges (if any). Besides, with the store being as little as it is (thus the “Express” – it’s still a Borders, just 500 times smaller) I don’t recall ever seeing a copy of “Practical Programming” or many other books of that ilk on the shelves.

  7. Jon Stumpf says:

    I am nostalgic for the “stacks” of the Rush Rhees library where I studied at the University of Rochester and will always appreciate the grandeur of any large library of books. However, even this library had limits to its collection and accessing out-of-library books were difficult. The issue at hand, in my opinion, is one of efficiency (or value) of library in how it delivers knowledge to readers/consumers. Robert Cringley mentioned the Cushing Academy decision on his blog (http://www.cringely.com/2009/09/burn-baby-burn/ ) and he wonders “why they need a building or even a room at all.” This blog entry goes on to question the huge expense of higher education similar to one Gary North posted last month (http://www.lewrockwell.com/north/north748.html ).

  8. Ed Dodds says:

    Stormy:
    I think one of things I’ve discovered after a childhood hanging out in school libraries is that I enjoy listening to some kinds of info (strategy books, trends, etc.) while some things (a new programming language, perhaps) I usually read. I subscribe to audiotech.com, audible.com and really wish there were more O’Reilly books in audio format (don’t know if Libraries for the Blind encode their stuff in a proprietary format or not). I can’t find theological reference material readily available in audio (which is ironic given the history of sermons). I found literacy bridge which is cool because it takes seriously the fact that most people who can’t read learning to read require audio – http://www.literacybridge.org/

  9. stormy says:

    I wonder if anyone’s done a study about what people prefer to listen to
    versus read?
    I always prefer reading a book over listening to it. However, I listen to a
    lot because I can listen while exercising and driving. I tend to get
    nonfiction books but I find the fiction ones much, much easier to listen to.
    (But then I find them easier to read too. :)
    I’m often really tempted to buy the audio version of the book I’m reading
    just so I can continue it during my walk or in the car. I haven’t so far.
    Figuring out where I am in the audio version is one of the main reasons
    (after cost.)
    FYI, I did try the text-to-speech option on the Kindle 2. I think I’d only
    use it in an emergency. It was hard to follow without all the right
    intonations.