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?

The Threshold of Pain

There’s been a great deal of discussion here at TKZ as well as on other blogs and forums about the changes taking place in the publishing industry. Most of it revolves around the rapid emergence and popularity of e-books and electronic publishing, and how it’s affecting traditional publishing. The industry as a whole appears liquid and seems to be changing almost by the day. Many of us are trying to find a stable place to stand as the ground shakes around us.

I don’t have any solutions to present here today. If I did, they would probably be outdated by the time I post my next blog. But I do have some observations.

For over 20 years, I worked in the video postproduction industry. During that time, one of the biggest advances in television and motion picture production was the advent of digital technology. Before high definition digital video, the only way to capture high quality images was on film. Even for personal home use, there was nothing better than standard 35mm film (some formats in the professional arena were larger sizes). For decades, no one envisioned that high quality images could be captured and delivered on any other format than film. (Note that film is still far greater resolution than high definition video). Even with its inherent grain, its ability to attract dirt, its somewhat fragile, easily damaged surface, and its constant weave and jitter through the projection system’s gate, it was as good as it can get. No other image delivery method could match film.

Today, most major motion pictures are still shot on film due mainly to the fact that film, unlike video, has much wider latitude and dynamic range, and still has the highest resolution available. But the image delivery system is changing. Now, original negative is transferred from film to video and color corrected within the digital domain. It is then projected in digital format rather than analog. Instead of individual frames passing through the gate of a projector, the images are retrieved from a hard drive or transmitted via satellite and projected electronically in resolutions up to 4k. It’s called digital cinema. No more scratches and weave, no more prints wearing out or film breaking. The thousandth time the movie is projected, it looks exactly like the first time.

Has the movie-going experience been hurt by digital cinema? No. In fact, it’s been enhanced beyond what the audience even realizes. The image is rock solid, crystal clear, and comes with multiple channels of digital audio for a totally entertaining experience. In most viewers eyes, it’s better than film.

How does this relate to analog vs. digital books? We must remember that what readers get when they purchase a book is a container holding our writing. Just like film and digital files can contain the same images, analog and digital books can hold the same words. An analog or printed book is simply a delivery vessel—something that contains our words and delivers them to our readers.

Remember Kodachrome film? It was first manufactured in 1935 and quickly became the most popular method of capturing and delivering images to the casual photographer. Eastman Kodak canceled production in 2009. Why? Because digital cameras had finally surpassed film as the most popular method of taking pictures. No one was buying Kodachrome anymore. But pictures were still being taken. Only now, the delivery system—the container—is digital files.

Could that happen to books? Maybe. And if it does, it probably will take a long time. After all, it took Kodachrome 74 years to die. But I hold to the theory of the “threshold of pain”. When something new comes along—let’s call it a widget—the first adapters must experience a certain amount of pain in order to try it. As the widget is further developed, refined and perfected, the pain starts to diminish. As the pain continues to decrease, more customers migrate to the widget because they learn of its pleasures and are willing to tolerate or ignore any remaining pain. At some point, the negatives along with the price dips below the threshold of pain, and the widget is embraced by the majority of the audience.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA         Here’s an example. Six years ago, I bought a 60” Sony HD TV. They were mostly available in high-end electronics boutiques. Top resolution was 720p. It cost me over $5k. There was a lot of pain in my wallet and the fact that it took months to get any kind of HD into my home. Today, I can get the same size screen at 1080p resolution at Wal-Mart for less than half the price. Hardly any pain. A whole lot of pleasure. And HD TV’s are as common as toaster ovens. The TV is a delivery system. What it delivers is images—or more specific, entertainment.

I believe that as a delivery system, analog books can be replaced if the replacement brings the user more pleasure than pain. If the reading experience is as good or better than analog. If they are reasonably priced. Easy to read from. Easy to use. Massive storage. Unlimited battery life. Unlimited selection of books. Scratch-‘n-sniff paper smell. OK, that last pleasure is future-ware.

Are e-books the answer? I don’t know. But what has happened is that due to the economy, competition, and a shifting marketplace, the electronic publishing flood gates have begun to open. A lot of new widgets are flowing out. The one thing they all have in common is that they are delivery systems. But what they deliver will never change. Our words. Our art.

Are you an early adaptor who likes living on the bleeding edge of technology? Or do you sit back and let others be the lab rats before you pull out your wallet and head over to Wal-Mart?