Future libraries

Last week the Slate article “What Will Become of the Library” by Michael Agresta burned up bookish social media circles. Much of what Agresta discusses I’ve written about on Nocturnal Librarian as well; he even mentions “book mountain” in the Netherlands.

He posits that bookless libraries are “almost inevitable” and goes over all the ways libraries are “reinventing” themselves. He covers maker spaces and innovation stations, and the “interventionist” role public libraries have in serving the “dispossessed of the digital age” – namely the homeless. And like so many others he asks whether “patching the gaps of the fraying social safety net” is or should be libraries’ role. (Agresta wasn’t alone on that topic last week — several newspapers covered recent ordinances prohibiting bathing, anti-social behavior, and sleeping in libraries across the country. I can report that in my library’s case, very few homeless patrons actually engage in those activities. A few hard cases make bad law, and always have, but I digress).

Stop yawning.

Having recently read Alfie Kohn’s excellent book The Myth of the Spoiled ChildI’ve become hyper-aware of how some media outlets are a sort of echo chamber of unsupported theories. I don’t know about your public library, but mine is nowhere near, now or in the foreseeable future, becoming a bookless downloadable maker space. There are a few exceptions, but I would guess, having chatted with a broad cross-section of my fellow public librarians at PLA 2014 last month, that most American libraries are much as they were a generation or two ago, albeit with more technology for both staff and patrons and new material on their shelves.

While journalists crow about our impending demise, we are frequently welcoming more people than ever, and not just the homeless; we serve, as we always have, every demographic, rich and poor, old and young, recent immigrant and Mayflower descendant. Are some libraries experiencing lack of growth? Yes. Is that caused by the coming digital smiting of traditional library services? A classic error of assuming causation. Sure, some libraries are losing patrons, for any of the reasons any service oriented business loses “market share,” like poor management or inadequate marketing.

People do visit their libraries for social interaction, as Agresta notes, but they aren’t all printing 3D gadgets or collaborating in a computer lab. Lots of people are attending lectures and classes, story times and book discussions just as they always have, and checking out physical books. Very few library patrons (or any other readers) choose ebooks exculsively — just 4%, according to the Pew Research Center. Many folks still want a quiet space to read or study, and we have that too, just as we always have.

Why the endless chatter about how different we are and how much we’ll have to keep changing when we are in fact, in cities and towns across America, essentially the same? I will allow that I am speculating as well, but I do have the benefit of a network of professionals whose anecdotal evidence indicates that issuing library cards, lending materials, providing information, recommending good books, and putting on programs are still the bulk of their daily work. Just as they were when my grandmother was a librarian. Pew notes that the presence of a library (in the traditional sense I’ve described) is highly valued across generations all over America. Will some communities choose new and different library services? Sure, but I’d bet even those still check out books, every day.

As for Agresta’s “book-oriented library, where it survives in defiance of the digital shift, tends to take on the aspect of a temple for this sort of focused, old-fashioned study and contemplation?” My reaction ranges from “get over yourself ” to “temple, schmemple.” Come browse our romance novels, our large print westerns, our People Magazine and Mother Earth News, our dystopian YA, zombie and horror paperbacks, our Value Line and Cat Fancy and cozy mysteries and chicklit and Amish fiction and inspirational memoirs, our self-help and car repair guides, our cookbooks and comics, and DIY, and then we’ll talk.

Now hear this: Real people, of all kinds, read all kinds of stuff they checked out at their local public libraries. It’s not a catchy lede, but it’s reality.

 

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Sunshine on Book Mountain

Mountains in ancient times were considered the homes of gods, or places where man could draw near the divine. My brother sent me an article about a book mountain in the Netherlands which looks like heaven to me. 

Architecture firm MVRDV explains the way the 10 year project, actually named Book Mountain and Library Quarter Spijkenisse, ties into the town’s history and setting. They plan to release a book, Make Some Noise, in late 2012 that will be a “photo novel” about the project. The Library Quarter includes 42 apartments from studios to large family units. Can you imagine living here?

There are many more photos at both links above and at inhabit. Several comments at these sites mention sun being bad for books. On the project’s website the architects anticipate criticism on this point, noting, “damage to the books by sunlight is off-set by their normal 4 year life-span due to wear and tear from borrowing.”

Wow. Really? My unscientific research reveals that library books have expected lifespans of 25-50 check-outs (which shows that there isn’t much consensus on this topic). Mending keeps some books going longer. I am pretty sure 4 years is a low estimate. Does anyone know the average shelf-life of  books in your local library?

I don’t have any idea how much the sun damages books. But I looked up average annual hours of sunshine and Rotterdam, near Spijkenisse, averages 1542 hours, versus 2519 where I live in New Hampshire. For reference to notoriously rainy and sunny places, I found that London averages only about 1600 hours of sunshine a year and Seattle, 2019 hours; Miami, 2900 hours; San Diego, 2958 hours; Honolulu, 3041 hours.

Even New York City, which I would have guessed wasn’t particularly sunny since its weather is quite variable and it’s roughly in the middle of U.S. latitudes, averages 2677 hours. So if sunlight is detrimental to book life-span, Book Mountain might work better in Northern Europe than in many parts of the United States. I am stepping away from this post now, rather than spending the rest of my afternoon finding out which places in the U.S. have the least hours of annual sunshine. Because I’m tempted to look into that.