The case for the written and printed word

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.

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Do Libraries Sap Attention Spans?

My son’s freshman class at college read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains by Nicholas Carr this summer. My husband is reading it now. Last night he read aloud: “until recently the library was an oasis of bookish tranquility” but now, Carr dramatizes, “The predominant sound in the modern library is the tapping of keys, not the turning of pages.” The implication that by offering internet access, libraries are contributing to the “shallowing” of our minds struck me as fairly improbable.

At the public library where I work, I recently chatted with an English teacher looking for a good book to take her mind off work. She’s the second teacher to tell me this summer that her students can’t read as much as when she began teaching. She assigns shorter classics so they won’t get frustrated, and because she’s learned that they won’t finish longer works. But she says they are reading, and she noted that how and what is probably less important than she once thought. As she put it, she sees teaching English as helping  kids become competent, not cramming them full of particular titles.

The teacher and I agreed someone reading an entire New York Times article on a smart phone (like my son) is getting the same depth as someone reading the print edition (more if like me, that person is skimming over morning coffee before rushing off to start the day).  So aren’t libraries broadening access to reading by catering to both print and online readers?

As Carr notes, library internet service is very popular. But many of the same people using the computers at my library are checking out books. And those who don’t use the computers are probably not Luddites, who are really fairly rare, but rather people who can afford computers and internet service at home. According to the ALA’s 2012 State of America’s Libraries report, libraries across the country have seen circulation increase, as my library has. From what I can see, people who have nowhere else to use the internet are finding their way into the stacks while they’re at the library, and not the other way around.

As for that bookish tranquility? The “shushing” era of librarianship was over long before I was in library school, twenty years ago. Libraries are community centers, and we’ve always been places where information is freely available to all. If the internet and its keyboard clicks are a part of that open access, so be it. Reading, whether on a screen or a page, is still very much alive in our hopped-up, attention-challenged, 24 hour news cycle world. It has faced other challenges in its history, as have libraries, and I think both will adapt and survive.