Friday, November 12, 2010

Paperless Libraries?

I am still in library school, and lack the depth of real-world experiences the other Katalogers have encountered on the job. So I am going to do what academics do best, theorize.

If you are as addicted to google reader as I am, I'm sure you come across several articles each week discussing the end of the Public Library. If not, here are a few examples

New Library Technologies Dispense With Librarians, Wall Street Journal
Digital Underclass: What Happens When the Libraries Die? ZDNet (Thanks for sharing, Gwen!!)

You can find lots of related articles/blog posts if you complete a simple internet search. (Don't know how to do that? call your local public library!) They all say the same thing. Digital books and technology are going to make public libraries and librarians irrelevant. The author of the ZDNet article thinks public libraries will suffer a slow death as the proliferation of digital materials makes printed materials outdated. The problem is these articles all seem to be written by people who have not been in a public library since they lost the 1982 summer reading program to a child that would one day become a librarian.

Yes, libraries have books. They also have e-books, DVDs, computers, programming, databases, periodicals, etc. To argue that printed books are the only thing keeping the library open is a gross misstatement. Even if the entire world went digital, we would still need libraries. There is a significant portion of the population that does not have internet access at home, cannot afford (or chooses not to purchase) an e-reader or computer, and wouldn't know what to do with one if they could. Government documents, job applications, customer service, and many other resources we need to live are solely available online. Where will citizens gain access to and learn to navigate these resources if the public library died? I'm pretty sure the post office or city hall would not step up to the plate.

Even if public libraries were just buildings full of books with stuffy librarians shushing more often than helping, they still would not die. E-books are simply not going to replace printed materials. Have you heard about the paperless office? Businessweek first mentioned it in 1975--35 years ago. I have yet to encounter an office that fits that description, because people LIKE to have a hard copy. The National Association of College Stores recently completed a survey and found that 75% of students would rather use a printed textbook over an e-book, and this is from a population that grew up with technology. In a Mashable poll, twice as many respondents indicated a preference for printed books over e-books (35% like both). Mashable provides content on social media, technology, and the internet. If surveys of digitally friendly populations are coming back with these numbers, imagine what a comprehensive survey of the nation would turn up.

Even though I am terrified to start the job search process, I am in no way afraid that my chosen profession will disappear or become irrelevant. In fact, I think librarians may be more essential today than they have ever been. While there are many threats to public libraries--inadequate funding, the prevalence of the belief that libraries are simply rooms full of books, lack of advocacy, etc.--technology is not one of them. Digital materials are as much of a danger to the public library as the paperless office is a reality.


  1. Hear, hear, Liz! I especially like your point about the paperless office. Just because it's possible to go totally digital/virtual doesn't mean we will, because humans are still physical beings. I don't see that changing in our lifetimes (and I don't care to contemplate the rise of future virtual humanoids... ugh).

  2. Liz

    Your points are well spoken and it is obvious that the author of the first piece hasn't been to a public library lately. Where will community centers like the library go, how about the programs, storytimes, classes to use all this fancy technology and much, much more.

    Kudos to you guys for speaking up and keeping this blog!!

    Big hugs from one of your biggest supports,
    Rebecca Super Librarian & Instructor

  3. This is why we love you Lizzie!

    I hate today's assumption that there is no digital divide...

    I keep repeating the same experience over and over: Either its a mandatory online application or a database we offer through the state library and patrons can't access it or finish their application because they don't have an EMAIL address.

  4. Insightful post! I really like hearing what you have to say!