If Physical Books Are Dead in Five Years, How Do the Poor Find Books? Whither (or Wither?) the Library?

As the slow-motion destruction of our nation's infrastructure continues due to deficits über alles hysteria, we find this very depressing article from Camden, NJ about the proposed eradication of its public library system:

Camden is preparing to permanently shut its library system by the end of the year, potentially leaving residents of the impoverished city among the few in the United States unable to borrow a library book free.

At an emotional but sparsely attended meeting of the library board Thursday, its president, Martin McKernan, said the city's three libraries cannot stay open past Dec. 31 because of severe budget cuts by Mayor Dana L. Redd.

"It's extraordinary, it's appalling," McKernan said.

All materials in the libraries would be donated, auctioned, stored, or destroyed. That includes 187,000 books, historical documents, artifacts, and electronic equipment. Keeping materials in the shuttered buildings is a fire hazard, officials said, and would make them vulnerable to vandalism and vermin.

There's a historical cost to this:

The libraries contain historically valuable materials, including phone books dating to the 1880s and newspapers on microfilm from the 1870s. If the library board chooses to save the microfilm, it would cost as much as $11,000 a year. And if the library cannot find a donor for all of its books, it is considering renting seven Dumpsters for $6,230.

Once you destroy a collection, you never get it back. And the human cost is considerable too:

In a city where less than a third of people have high-speed Internet service in their homes, according to the research group CamConnect, libraries allow people to go online, do schoolwork, and look for jobs. Closing the three branches would end the more than 150,000 annual visits - along with the daily chess games and children's book readings. During extreme weather, the facilities provide a respite for the homeless....

Simmons is an unemployed single mother who relies on the library to apply for jobs; many workplaces now only accept online applications. She was busy Thursday applying for a job at Old Navy in the Cherry Hill Mall.

Next to her sat Timothy Thomson, 32, who was laid off from Verizon last year. He comes to the library twice a week to check out self-help books and apply for jobs. Despite having a bachelor's degree from Rutgers-Camden and recently completing culinary training at DeVry University, he said, he's still having trouble finding work.

And the plight of the poor is what disturbs me about this prediction by Nicholas Negroponte:

The physical book is dead, according to Negroponte. He said he realizes that's going to be hard for a lot of people to accept. But you just have to think about film and music. In the 1980s, the writing was on the wall that physical film was going to die, even though companies like Kodak were in denial. He then asked people to think about their youth with music. It was all physical then. Now everything has changed.

By "dead," he of course doesn't mean completely dead. But he means that digital books are going to replace physical books as the dominant form. His argument is related to his One Laptop per Child Foundation. On those laptops, he can include hundreds or thousands of books. If you think about trying to ship that many physical books to the emerging world for each child, it would be impossible, he reasons.

"People will say 'no, no, no' -- of course you like your libraries," Negroponte said. But he cited the report that sales of books for the Kindle recently surpassed sales of hardcover books.

We can't even bring ourselves to provide assistance to the long-term unemployed. Does anyone really think that we will provide a computer to every household? And will internet access be subsidized for the poor and unemployed?*

The great promise of our libraries is that, if you can physically get there (and for some services, even that isn't required), you have access to the materials, rich or poor. And in the 21st century, that also means the internet, for those who can't afford to access it. Personally, I use the library all the time, and it seems a pretty bustling place to me--if anything, it would appear library use is soaring, at least in Boston.

Books need to be accessible to all, not just those able to afford internet access and Kindle. To declare the need for libraries dead is just stupid technobabble.

*This seems like something USPS, with government support, could do. But that would require improving our infrastructure, and that's, like, totally HITLER!

More like this

You would think that in hard times, there would be more library use if people were cutting back on new book purchases. The last time I was at the BPL, though, it seemed a lot of the people in the checkout lines had videos and audiobooks. Not that there's necessarily anything wrong with that. As the article makes clear, there's a lot more to a library than just the stacks. Which means the fate of the library shouldn't be tied to the fate of the book, the library should always have a place. But there still doesn't seem to be a very good answer to how to give library-like access to ebooks.

I overheard this exchange while standing in line at a neighborhood convenience store this weekend:

Job Seeker: "I saw a sign in the window that says you are hiring. Do you have an application I can fill out?"

Store Manager: "You have to apply online."

We will be well on our way to creating a permanent subclass of people without jobs and without access to job opportunities if we start shuttering libraries. It's a frightening possibility.

More likley is that books will be printed to order, existing as electronic copies only until requested. This of course greatly changes the bookstore business as it can now be operated out of a closet. You select the book in question, and then have it custom printed and bound if desired. (Note that with Google books for 19th century and earlier books you can do this today).

As to the internet access question, you have also the internet cafe model.

Ugh. I had an incredibly frustrating argument about this with some facebook friends a couple of weeks ago. They were extolling the virtues of their Kindles and I expressed concern about exactly this thing -- people not being able to afford books, because you can't borrow them for free or buy used ones for cheap. They said, "But if e-copies are cheaper than paper books! Some of them only cost $10!" They fundamentally did not grasp my repeated attempts to point out to them that some people (raises hand) can't afford to pay $10 every time they want to read a book. It doesn't matter that it's cheaper than a $30 hardback. What is so difficult to understand about that?


I haven't seen an Internet cafe in the US, ever.

I've seen coffee shops with Internet access...if you bring your own computer. And even those are nonexistant in some communities. The library I work in, we even get obviously well-off people coming in because it's the only place they can find with public wifi. (I think there may be a couple of others, but I don't know where they are.)

Without free, or extremely cheap, Internet access, there are people who are essentially unable to participate in the economy. If the US had PC-bangs like South Korea maybe library internet access wouldn't be a necessity.

Our transportation system has already created chicken-and-egg problems for people (like Alice Cooper). Credit reporting has done so, too. This is just another anchor for the underclass.

Ian, we have had internet cafes. At least, around here, there were some, but they came and went. Internet with cafe couldn't compete with cafe with internet.

I would bet that the average age of the people who are promoted products like Kindle to be somewhere around 25. They don't have the experience, wisdom, or maturity to realize the value of books. Yet, they feel knowledgeable enough to predict that electronic media will replace physical media. They obviously never listened to an LP, nor tucked a book into their backpack to carry 20 miles into the wilderness for a week. Try doing that with electronics easily. Wake up people!

There seems to be some sort of drive to push all physical media into the realm of becoming only accessible digitally. Wake up people. Anyone notice that they have already been doing this with music and video? Now they want to do it with books? It is all part and parcel of industry convincing us this is the best route because every time we want to read something, we will have to pay for it. WE NEED LIBRARIES!!! WE NEED TO KEEP THEM FREE!!! And what about the poor, who have always relied on libraries? As we advance into the future, a greater line of division continues to grow between the rich and poor. What we need to do is stop the stupid, finance draining wars overseas, and keep the money here to put back into our economy to save all of the valuable services that are quickly beginning to disappear, like libraries, reduced police and fire fighting units.

By Vic Vegas (not verified) on 10 Aug 2010 #permalink

The library branches in my northern California county are now open no more than 30 hours per week and they continue to rely on volunteers to shelve books and book sales to raise money to purchase books.

One thing you continue to see in library branches are young children checking out books and parents checking out alphabet books and other early-reader books. How exactly will a 3-year-old interact with a Kindle or other e-reader?

How sterile an environment will a library be when story time is held with a librarian reading from a Kindle in a room filled with computer monitors?

I'm retired and live basically on Social Security alone. I can't afford to pay $10+ for a digital copy of a book to read on a $200 e-reader. I can still go to a used book store or a thrift store to buy a cheap used book but if books become digital only there will be no used book stores because, eventually, there will be no used books.

There's more to the physical book than being a container for words; it's something to possess, to treasure, to share. Little of that is found in the digital book and we'll be poorer for it.

I think this should not be a surprise. This is the type of world market fundamentalism advocates for. I think it was Ayn Rand who called public libraries a crime against humanity. So, there is no place for a public sphere any more. This is the type of world our society has been struggling to create, the privatization of every aspect of our lives. Those who cannot participate in the system are not worth lamenting for. I hate it, but I have to admit that is the philosophical foundation of our society. Otherwise we would be Europeans. Maybe we should.

Maybe I am just old fashion, but it is easier for me to read an actual book than electronic media. There is something about the feel of paper that is missing from an electronic screen. I have the same problem with writing. I can focus my ideas much more clearly if I am writing by hand rather than typing. I wander if there is something to this, or if it is just the way I grew up. What about future writers. Will electronic media facilitate publishing from new writers? Or make it just impossible? Electronic media has a tendency for spectacle, could the writing suffer as works focus more and more on images, links, and commentary? It is all very confusing, and I do not know how to feel.

Depressing story! And I completely agree -- I probably take out 150 books a year from the library, and there is no way I could pay for all of them. My reading habits would change drastically if I had to.

But there still doesn't seem to be a very good answer to how to give library-like access to ebooks.

The Toronto Public Library offers ebooks, although I've never used the service: http://beta.torontopubliclibrary.ca/books-video-music/downloads-ebooks/…

Reading a physical book is much better for my wife and I. To lie in bed, pick up a book open to where you left off, be able to back up a page or several paragraphs, fall asleep with it lying at ease beside you, throwing it into a backpack and not worrying if it gets broken; I can't see doing this with whatever those things are called.

On the other hand, we make most of our living on the internet, so for us technology is great.

Some things that have been overlooked as factors in this question are:

1. I would guess that 95% of the world cannot afford $10.00 for a book.

2. Internet access is cheaper than a book. In Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, where we have lived, and Peru, where we live now, access to the internet is available and cheap everywhere. For example, here in Los Organos, Peru, a fishing village (maybe 8,000 people), there are 4 internet places that I know of and I'm sure there are others. They cost 30 cents US an hour.

3. The majority of people in the US do not read a book a year. They are not like you and me.

4. Nobody mentioned what we do to adjust to changing times and conditions. Living in a town where you would have a hard time finding a book to buy even in Spanish, we have nonetheless found out how to deal with our addiction to reading entertaining and informative literature. We find a book online, download it, and print it out. Punch a hole in the corner, put a ring through, and you have your printed book. It costs us about 1 dollar a book (still costly for most of the world).

Of course this only works with free (out of copyright) books, but it supplies a HUGE number of entertaining and fascinating books.

So we combine the two...technology and internet...and still have our paper books to fall asleep contentedly with.