Libraries, an endangered species

By Joe Moore

I’ve been reading news stories lately about the changing role of libraries, and to a certain extent, their demise. Some blame the economy is killing libraries—shorter hours open less days per week with fewer features. Others heap a lot of blame on the rapid growth and popularity of smart-phone technology and e-books. In reality, it’s probably a combination of both along with a changing demographic in the community.

No doubt, someday in the future, history students might study the rise and fall of these cavernous, book-loaning institutions. They may wonder why this somewhat inefficient system of printing and storing large quantities of books ever made sense. And they may chuckle at pictures of endless shelves housing thousands of books with their ever-yellowing pages that, from the day they left the printer, were on a non-reversible journey to the landfill.

It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t read books on a handheld electronic device or a cell phone. You couldn’t easily download a book onto a computer laptop to read it. The world wasn’t debating whether libraries would one day be unnecessary, as book reading and book loaning become possible, even probable, online or wireless. And, more importantly, money wasn’t so tight that libraries would be considered an unaffordable luxury.

I live in South Florida. Down here, municipalities are having to decide whether some libraries should be consolidated or closed, and whether hours can be cut back even further. Library regulars are dealing with more of the electronic book world sooner than they expected as they see traditional library buildings closing. County government is wrestling with a budget that’s steadily dwindling. Library jobs are being cut and the hours of operation are being significantly reduced. All branches are now closed Saturdays, and they will no longer be open past 6 PM on weekdays. The county is not ready to close all the library doors and send patrons online yet. But it’s not out of the question for the future.

Electronic book readers are still too pricy to loan out, but many librarians are predicting a time when they’ll be cheap enough to do it. I’m surprised that a manufacturer hasn’t stepped forward with a specialized, scaled-down e-book reader that can be used just for that purpose—perhaps with a built-in GPS (like cell phones) for retrieval in case of theft or overdue status. Or better yet, sell the specialized e-readers to registered library customers at a greatly reduced price or as a rental. Maybe the device would have access to the content of that particular library system only.

Funding is one way to save a library. But with property values plummeting along with property tax revenue collections, libraries are way down on the list of priorities. I recently read that one in three people who visit a South Florida library are not there to read or borrow books. They’re there for computer access or training. With the jobless rate so high, many people can no longer afford Internet access at home. They head for the local library to job search and electronically apply for employment. And if they have a laptop, they’re in the library to take advantage of free Wi-Fi offered at some locations.

So what does the future of libraries look like in your community? Should library systems join forces with companies like Starbucks and have a café in each branch to generate revenue? Are there ways for them to self-fund? Is the day of free books coming to an end?What will help libraries keep their doors open and their patrons not left high and dry?

20 thoughts on “Libraries, an endangered species

  1. Joe – we just went to our local library here in Melbourne which has just had a million dollar upgrade. They have a state of the art self-check in and out system that uses radio frequency(!) and have a brand new system for lending e-books out (I’m going to a demo on Friday about it). They have a community gallery attached that offers events as well as classes and a cafe next door that has breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as coffee (and it’s licensed so you can get wine too!). I was gobsmacked – compared to the US libraries I’ve been to, this one was thriving (and obviously is well funded). At least it seems that libraries are alive and well here in Melbourne!

  2. Clare, that’s really encouraging to hear. I believe that strategic partnerships are a big key to the future of libraries. Like the one in Melbourne, make them multi-tasking, multi-functional. As an example, Super Target Stores have a Starbucks and a Pizza Hut as part of the shopping experience. Now the big Walmarts are converting their snack bars over to Subway restaurants. What if libraries had kiosks that let you order your favorite book from an independent book store or B&N or Amazon. The library would get a cut of the sale. Just a thought. But the point is that in order to survive, I feel that libraries need to expand the “experience” of going to the library even more so than they are now.

  3. I was surprised to see Wii and Playstation games available for borrowing at my local library. There are also lots of DVDs. I think they are buying less books, and more other types of media.

  4. I don’t know what the answers are but the state of my local library grieves me. The hours have been drastically cut (Mon-Thur open 10a-7p, Fri only till 5p. So far still open on Saturday). That wouldn’t be so bad but the hours they ARE open are only convenient to the unemployed and those who work second shift. What were they thinking????? Give us working stiffs a chance for crying out loud. The weekday hours should be more like 12N to 9p.

    It used to be that, to have quiet interrupted time, I could take a notebook or laptop with me to the library, find a desk and work quietly. No more. Not unless I go on a Saturday (if I can find time between all the other errands of the day). And since I write historicals based on my home state here, I need access to the rare books room, which is like requesting access to Fort Knox b/c they don’t want to staff it.

    And there’s also the other needs a library meets that people don’t think about. Like people who struggle w/their electric bill here in hot AZ actually hang out at the library during the day for survival. Yes I understand there are people who will say “That’s their problem.” But personally, I’d rather have kids and parents hanging out at the library gaining some benefit then standing on a street corner or elsewhere.

    I know city budgets are tight. And I don’t care how technology and book reading is changing, or that people come in a lot to use conputers, it’s a place for the community to come and learn and should be preserved.

  5. I’ve been hearing the same things about libraries–shorter hours, laying off part-timers, etc. You’d think that in a slow economy, libraries would be a way for people to enjoy reading without all the expense of buying the books themselves. Like other companies in the publishing industry, they will probably have to reinvent themselves to stay viable in changing times. Not sure what the answer is, but it makes me sad. I was a constant fixture in my library growing up. It’s where I stirred up my imagination.

  6. That’s an interesting issue, Andrea. Might be worth asking the head librarian what their long-term marketing plan is.

    BK, it’s a shame that so many external forces are changing our libraries. Just like Andrea, you might want to ask your library staff what they plan to do to survive. Let’s hope they have a plan.

    Jordan, I think the reinvention of libraries is inevitable. Let’s hope they preserve the core values of the institutions as they avoid closure and morph into their next phase of existence.

  7. Libraries are natural cultural and community centers; I hope they will be able to re-energize themselves as Clare’s library has done, to stay solvent and vibrant in the years to come.

  8. Okay, here’s my sorry confession: I have not borrowed a book from the library since college. Up until ten years ago, libraries were places to do research, but even then, given my proximity to the Library of Congress and the National Archives, the local county library was of only marginal usefulness. More recently, I can do all the research I need on the Internet. If I need to reference a book, I either buy it, or I go to the far more welcoming Barnes & Noble Public Library, where I can pile all the books I need on the same table that holds my coffee. If I don’t find what I need there, then I have a lot more success at the local university libraries than I do the county library.

    I think I might have just described one of the great advantages of living near Washington, DC.

    John Gilstrap

  9. I agree that libraries (outside Melborne)have to change and keep up with technology and figure out a way to download books to devices they own and lend out. One advantage with e-books, aside from convenience, is that the pages won’t turn yellow with age and don’t take up space in the house.

    I like my new Kindle, but I don’t know why I can’t send the books to friends with Kindles the way I loan paper-paged books. I’m buying them, not renting them at nearly retail prices. I also understand that controlling downloads is the only way publishers and outlets can keep theirs and our product from being Napstered to the masses for nothing.

    E-books are here to stay and will be more profitable for publishers and authors. In the future authors get a larger percentage of the profits than the standard 8-10% ––forever and throughout the Universe. It seems obvious that the publishers are going to be making large money on virtually no production costs (after editing and typesetting). That said, the main advantage of publishers will continue to be the talented editors and proof readers they employ. Well, and advertising in the rare case when some is actually done for a book by the publisher. With the advent of the Internet I foresee more as well as more effective advertising in the future from houses.

    Face it, even though e-books can be self published easily and inexpensively, publishers are and will continue to be crucial to maintain quality of the product.

  10. Yes, same story here in L.A. I can still order any book in the system and have it sent to my local branch. I also like to take the subway downtown to the central branch on occasion. Being in the library itself feels good and right. But money, or lack thereof, speaks. Too bad.

    I’ve heard Ray Bradbury speak several times at local branches. He’s a big advocate of libraries, God bless him.

  11. Our libraries here in Alaska are doing fairly well as far as I can tell. While the internal hours at the main branch have been reduced, everything is available online as well. And during normal business hours (10am-8pm) one can go to the four story building, have a coffee and sandwich at the cafe, enjoy free wifi, and sit in one of the massive reading areas and either read or stare at the surrounding mountain vistas. One of the reading rooms is designed to look like a 1920’s library with highbacked leather chairs and books (which are available for reading) from the libraries original 1920’s collection lining the tall shelves along the walls. Whenever I go to that room I feel like I should be wearing a red velvet jacket and be sipping a glass of very expensive Cognac.

    Honestly though, my primary use of the library is online these days. I download numerous audiobooks, and reserve any paper books I want to be sent to my local branch for pickup. The local branch is located in a shopping mall three miles from my house and looks more like a school library than a muni library.

  12. By the way, today’s word verification was “treleas”, which made me think of elves (LOTR types). For some reason, that was a happier word than yesterdays…gloom dissolved.

    You see, all my child hood years in libraries, nose buried in fanatasy did something to my imagination afterall.

  13. I have to agree that libraries must reinvent themselves. What that might look like, no one can yet foresee though we do have the model of B&N with their Starbucks.

    I must confess I don’t visit my local library much but I hope I can get brownie points from Joe for teaching high school with the media center right next door. Technically, I walk through it multiple times each day. 😉

    Finally, all this talk of Ray Bradbury and Kathryn’s post yesterday got me searching YouTube for more writerly goodies. I found this:

    A Conversation with Ray Bradbury

    There are some *great* quotes in there a little past the half-way mark.

  14. You’re right, Kathryn. Clare’s library sounds like the template for others to follow.

    Jim, you’re fortunate to have heard Bradbury in person. He’s one of my heroes.

    Basil, if my local library looked like the one you describe with its view and 1920’s theme, I’d be there every day.

    Daniel, close proximity will always get you those brownie points.

  15. Hi, all!

    I’m a Branch Manager in Broward County (So. FL). Yes, library staff members are worried every fall about possible cuts to hours & ultimately, jobs. The jury’s still out on the coming year…

    What’s so frustrating to us is that we see that our libraries are as busy as ever, what with people applying online for all kinds of jobs, applying for food stamps and other social services (thanks to former Gov. Jeb Bush who pushed this onto us!), taking computer classes (although we no longer have paid staff to do this…thank God for volunteers!), borrowing DVD’s (20% of our circulation!), and yes, still reading BOOKS!

    However, we suffer the slings & arrows of naysayers who claim that libraries are doomed or already dead and therefore aren’t worth funding. We ARE changing…more technology, e-books, but still the printed word lives on!

    If you’re one of those, stop in to your local library!

  16. I don’t care if libraries die out. I can go into the seattle library with a huge list of specific books I want, and they won’t have any of them. The good books that are in demand are always checked out, and there is usually a few people on the waiting list, so unless I want to wait two to three months, I can’t get the book. If I want to find books on say, the brain, my only option is to browse their section of 1-10 year old brain books and pick something out, but I certainly can’t find a specific book I want. Also, sometimes I forget to return books and one time I got stuck with over $50 in fines for not returning books on time. I just buy my books instead on

  17. The library’s been a constant in my life since elementary school. I went to the little local one once a week as a kid, had my first legal job there as a teenager, and still go to the central research library in New York (the one in your photo, Joe. I think.) to write at least once a week. And then I hop across the street to borrow books. Both libraries are always full. I’m not sure if New Yorkers are poorer or just appreciate great, free stuff more.

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