A few weeks ago I was driving to Vermont to see my college-student son, listening to NPR, and heard this interview with Texas judge and former San Antonio mayor Nelson Wolff, the man behind “Bibliotech” the “bookless library.” As I’ve written here before, Wolff clearly doesn’t know much about the obstacles publishers place on library e-books: burdensome pricing structures, limits on the number of check-outs, etc., which result in long waits for popular titles. He promotes his model as fiscally prudent, but seems not to worry about spending tax dollars on e-books licenses, which expire, unlike physical books, which are libraries’ to keep for as long as they can be mended. And let’s not forget that e-readers and tablets break, wear out, or become obsolete as new technologies come along.
In the interview with Scott Simon, Wolff noted one goal of Bibliotech, to “bring technology to a area of the city that is economic disadvantaged, highly minority, and do not have access to the Internet and the various modes that we have to access it. So we provide eBook readers that they can check out.” If the readers are pre-loaded with e-books, this makes a little sense, but it doesn’t explain: a) how people without internet access benefit from borrowing a device that requires an internet connection to maximize its use and b) why providing internet access and devices has to exclude access to printed books, which are also not common in low-income households. Also, nowhere in any of the coverage of Bibliotech have I read anything about whether librarians or library patrons were asked about their needs.This is one man’s dream, and that’s how it should be reported.
Wolff, like much of the press, is also behind the curve on e-books: the Pew Research Center notes that younger library users (16-29) value technology but also read print books at higher rates than older Americans (75% of Americans 16-29 have read a print book in the last year), and studies show e-books sales have leveled off or are declining (Nicholas Carr offers insightful reasons for this at that same link). In Canada, they have fallen to 15% of the book market. In the UK, e-books are 9% of the book market, and in the U.S., e-books are just under 25% market share. That’s it. But you didn’t know that, because the reporting is “1 in 4 books are e-books” not “3 in 4 books are printed.”
That hardly sounds like something to devote an entire new library building to, does it? I think the smarter way to go is to incorporate technology into library offerings, and to respond to the actual needs of local library users. Many of whom are looking for more than technology. They want places to meet and connect with their neighbors, according to sources as varied as the Pew Research Center and the people of Effingham, New Hampshire, who are delighted with the improvements made to their public library and are flocking to events, the most popular of which is “Writer’s Night,” in which “the community turns out to hear presentations by writers,” then “play music, recite poetry, read a passage from a favorite book,” during open mic. Bravo to Marilyn Swan, the resourceful library director who is working on making her library — and the written word — a vital part of Effingham life.
Another story that cheered me a bit: in England, students used 400-year-old maps from the British Library to create authentic and very high tech 3D gaming worlds for a competition. These young people, steeped in technology, are seeing library collections come to life in their work. Well done, British Library and city of Nottingham, which sponsors the GameCity “festival of video game culture.” The Daily Mail reports, “The primary objective of the competition was to inspire innovation among students and merge rich visual sources from the past with industry-leading technology.” Not to mention getting them into the archives of the venerable British Library, and giving them reason to value preserving print materials.