Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The function of public libraries

Libraries already seem kind of quaint. In the future, they're going to seem quainter.

I'm not talking about specialized, academic libraries. I'm talking about the public library, Ben Franklin/Andrew Carnegie type libraries.

A nearby town has just approved plans for building a new library. Like most public libraries, it will almost instantly serve 3 primary functions: DVDs for cheap middle class patrons, internet access for those who don't have one at home, and a place for homeless bums to snooze. If you think I'm being harsh, you haven't been in a public library recently.

Those my age (I'm 53) often retain childhood memories of libraries, where nerdish children sought knowledge, and kindly librarians (always women, in this memory) guided the children in their quest.

Now those nerdish kids are doing primarily internet searches. And given the nature of nerds, they'd be doing it at home with high speed access.

Lots of folks -- me included -- don't like to read off a "device." I'm thinking about the Amazon Kindle here, though I've never used one. But what I'm also telling myself is that I need to get over it. "Devices" for reading text are already vastly better than they were, and will get lots better in the years to come.

So let's fast forward 20 years. (We could probably see this in 5 years, but I'll give you 20 for the sake of argument). In this scenario, virtually everyone has a device. We'll probably have a subscription to something like Amazon where we'll be able to download an unlimited amount of reading material for, say, $9.95 a month. Or maybe it'll be $.99 per book. Whatever the cost, it will be cheap. The reader device will be good, easily read, and portable with a huge library of books in memory. And you're telling me people will be going to a physical library, to "check out" books? Come on.

These facilities are already dinosaurs. A child born in 2008 will literally be unable to understand why we ever built them. That's OK: time passes, and things become outdated. The question is why we're building them now.

Even without a Kindle reader, I seldom patronize a library. I can buy many used books (physical books) cheap on Amazon. I often get them for a dollar or 2, and then pay $3.99 for shipping. Why would I drive to a library, check out a book, have to worry about it being overdue when I can own a copy for often less then $6 total? My time is too valuable to deal with schlubbing to a library, and dealing with the aggravation.

And I'm not alone. People like me -- the middle class, middle-aged patrons who used to be the mainstay of public librarianship -- are gone. We won't be coming back. And there's no one to replace us.

But we're still spending millions of tax dollars building these facilities. We could do worse: most politicians waste far more than that. But there's no reason to be building these places. They won't be open in 50 years. And there's no reason to open a new one now.

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