How the Digital Revolution Saved the Library
bout a decade ago, Blockbuster seemed a
commercial entity whose demise was anything but foreseeable. As the de-facto movie rental outlet in most Americans’ minds for roughly twenty years, the national chain’s strength peaked in 2004 with over 6,000 locations (Clifford 2011). It was the VHS boom that gave Blockbuster a household name, and the tape’s replacement, the DVD, which allowed it to downright thrive.
But as the digital revolution got underway in the early 2000’s, Blockbuster wasn’t the only American staple that was suddenly facing a struggle to survive. The record stores were closing up shop in the face of iTunes and the growth of file sharing networks like the now-defunct Napster. Coin-fed arcades gave way to the popularity of home entertainment driven by the explosion in console choices like the PlayStation and Nintendo64. Even the demise of Borders bookstores can be partially attributed to the eBook era, being pushed over part by its arch-rival Barnes and Noble (and their catchy Nook devices), not to mention Amazon.
Even avenues that many thought were innately future-proofed for the digital second coming, avenues that seemed sure to survive, such as cyber cafes and the electronics’ chain Circuit City, even they ended up biting the dust. How could the digital age kill off coffee shops filled to the brim with computer systems, as well as a retail chain that dedicated a large part of its focus directly on computer sales? It is pretty clear that this revolution wasn’t only eradicating legacy vestiges of yesteryear: it also seemed intent, even if unconsciously, on cannibalizing facets of life that had not conformed to the expectations of the modern citizen: or, the Netizen.
One mainstay local institution that has learned not only to evolve, but concretely adapt to its formerly feared digital murderer is a place we all grew up as card-carrying members. That’s right, I’m talking about the library. While Blockbuster, cyber cafes, and Circuit City were all trampled in the digital stampede, the outlet most famously known for asking us all to “Please Keep Quiet” isn’t skipping a beat.
How did Google, eBooks, and residential internet prevalence not kill off this centuries-old institution?
While I’m focusing a majority of the numbers behind my argument around American libraries, the few numbers I have culled from other countries’ are showing that similar trends hold true abroad. At the same time we are buying up devices that enable us to find almost anything we need without necessitating a trip to the library –– yet libraries have a resounding chorus of voices in poll after poll that show a public just as enthralled with them, if not more-so, than before the digital era ballooned.
Pew Research Center conducts a bevy of yearly polls surrounding attitudes towards libraries in the USA. And one of its latest released surveys doesn’t show much change in Americans’ love for their localolder) -– 54% -– have used a library in some fashion in the last year, and an even larger number (72%) responded that they live in a “library household.” A full 94% of Americans say that libraries improve the quality of life in their communities. Another 81% say that libraries provide services which people would otherwise have a tough time finding elsewhere (Zickuhr, 2013).
When asked about their thoughts of how well libraries have kept up with the digital age, most people agree that libraries have done quite a good job. For example, a mere 34% of Americans (16 and older) believe that libraries have not kept up with the digital revolution. That’s about a third of the public; a sizable number but still a minority, which clearly shows libraries are winning the modernization PR war.
The most surprising numbers come in the form of people’s experiences with libraries in general. Contrary to popular representation in the media that they harbor gremlin-like librarians who force misery upon visitors, librarians get very high reviews from the public: 91% of the same polled set of Americans claim they have never had a negative experience at a public library. And 94% say that based on their experiences, libraries are welcoming and friendly places (Zickuhr, 2013).
One would also think that the digital age would be shuttering libraries in our communities, especially considering the tight budgets caused by the recent recession. This is anything but the case. The Institute of Museum and Library Services, the foremost authority on all things library in the USA, has data showing that the number of libraries is not dropping.
The FY2010 report (the latest available version) shows a total of 8951 public libraries in the USA. If you add back in the 290 libraries which the study excluded for the first time due to being in non-Federal-State Cooperative System (FSCS) locations, then you have a total of 9241 libraries (ALA, 2013). The previous FY2009 report from the same organization only showed 9225 libraries in the United States (Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2009). That’s an addition of 16 libraries year over year, but the bigger point is that we had no effective drop in library outlets –– even in light of tablets, smartphones, and home PCs devastating every other facet of retail and media life.
Library locations are also holding steady. Library usage is moving into new territory, far beyond the realm of traditional book borrowing. As said previously, people’s attitudes toward their local libraries, even in 2014, couldn’t be any better. In fact, libraries have one of the highest popularity ratings of any institution in America.
If broadband internet is becoming so readily available on our phones and at home, where does the traditional library fit in our modern ever-connected life? More interestingly, how does its popularity stay so high? Shouldn’t the digital revolution have sent libraries packing starting with the internet boom of the late 1990s?
It is my assertion that having a physical presence has little to do with the library’s continued allure to the public. The once-mighty Blockbuster was bursting at the seams with locations every few miles in urban areas until its heyday came crashing down a half decade ago. It isn’t the locale, it’s the astonishing array of services which the library is busily transforming itself to provide, certainly much, much more than just what its name implies (‘library’ has its Latin roots in the term bookcase).
It is not books that are driving most of the foot traffic in libraries these days. While yes, book borrowing is still very important to many Americans (with Pew Research showing 80% of the public calling it “very important” to them) numerous other offerings by the library are just as high on the public’s list. Just as many library users (80%) claim that they find it “very important” that librarians help people find information, a full 77% have the same affinity for free computer and internet access. Close behind are the need for quiet study spaces (76%), programs and classes for teens and children (76%), and research resources like free databases (73%). Free public meeting spaces are also deemed as very important by nearly half (49%) of these respondents (Zickuhr, 2013).
The transformation here is pretty clear. Without a shift in priorities, libraries would have continued to merely act as the Blockbuster of the book world. And likewise, they would have crumbled from the same forces. I believe that libraries should probably change their name and the respective image associated with the classic passive book sometime in the near future. Libraries are clearly not holding onto life merely due to their vast book collections anymore, and they have been paying close attention to the changes wrought by The Social Era. I suggest that if they want to go to even greater heights, they will need a public relations image overhaul for the doubtful among us: surely books cannot matter all that much in the age of the iPhone?
Perhaps something like Social Collaboration & Learning Center? Definitely not as clean as the term library, but I believe that this modern tagline is a better fit for this age-old institution. Even my beloved library from the high school from which I graduated back in 2005 has been steadily backtracking from its dedication to the “printed first” mentality. Book shelf space has been dropping visibly over the last decade, as has the number of hulking shelving units eating up room: now, the spaces are turning into collaboration areas.
Over the years that I worked for my former high school as a technologist (post-college), I watched the transformation without quite realizing what I was seeing. When I was a student myself, a majority of time spent in the library was for the sole purpose of utilizing what were then called the “writing labs,” school-speak for . . . computer labs! This was the early 2000’s, and teachers all over the school were fighting just to get us to these labs as often as possible.
More than a few teachers were still trying to keep the printed word alive, and forced us to dedicate at least a few sources from each research paper to books. But by the time I was wrapping up my employment term at the high school in 2012, I felt the love affair with printed material was almost extinct.
The library was now the central place in the high school for student project groups to collaborate and seek guidance from librarians. Teachers were soaking up computer lab usage to capacity. Magazine borrowing was still popular on study hall breaks, but the book shelves were collecting more and more dust. Book re-shelving, which was once a daily or bi-daily affair, turned into a single end-of-week task.
The drop in the rate of book borrowing did not result in a decimation of the library’s innate value. Yes, student research needs were shifting into an online-driven ecosystem, where Word files saved on file shares were making pen and pencil notebooks irrelevant, but this didn’t mean that libraries were becoming less valuable. Usage habits were transformed by the digital revolution, and the library had two choices: evolve or die. They overwhelmingly chose the former, and with pretty darn good success to show for it thus far.
While I’m not here to beat the drum of the eBook debate, there are a lot of merits to the rise of digital books and their growing preference among readers. For one, digital books don’t come with the traditional physical burdens that are hard to justify for budget-strapped libraries. Put aside the high cost of purchase for printed books, especially on hot new releases that fiction readers clamor for. There’s also something to be said for the shelf space needed to house all of these books. We forget about the cost of transportation that these books force upon libraries, especially in areas where cooperatives have been formed in book sharing programs between sister libraries.
The suburban libraries in my area just outside Chicago, IL (USA) all shuttle books between one another as patrons request items that are not local to their home library. Digital versions of these cooperatives need none of these drains in physical resources: gas, vehicle expenses, etc. I think soon there will be similar arguments for the unnecessary costs of land-based colleges altogether: online colleges do not need all that physical space!
And it goes without saying that there is a lot of time required to keep a library’s book shelves humming. It’s the book version of an assembly line, with each cog in the gears performing its own labor-intensive sliver of work. Purchasing, cataloging, renting, collecting, shelving, and handling this same process all over again, day in, day out. There are no more efficiencies that can be squeezed out of this manual process. Digital is probably the best thing to happen to cash-strapped libraries in the entire history of the institution. They certainly have taken the economies of scale and made them work in their favor!
A one-way information flow, from writer to reader, was all anyone knew until the last half decade or so. Libraries were the culmination of this one way street. The published powers that ruled the information world were part of the power structure that produced the content, and we devoured it. And that was how the world turned.
This paradigm has shifted considerably, and continues to adapt to what Netizens are demanding from their information outlets. Printed newspapers are moving to digital formats where people can pluck news as they desire from RSS feeds. Blogs are now in some instances more powerful than the news outlets they replaced. And the rise of podcasting has allowed anyone with a computer and mic to deliver weekly audio to an unlimited listener base, not held back by the magnates that used to control traditional broadcast media.
Google gave us the first taste of contextual knowledge relevancy. We had a treasure trove of information out there basking on the internet, but it didn’t mean much to most of us until Google organized it, categorized it, and allowed us to thumb through it with keywords. What good is an ocean of information if we can’t make sense of it, in the way that is most relevant to what we need and when we need it? Google showed us how, and I don’t think we can ever go back.
Former Editor-in-Chief of WIRED Magazine, Chris Anderson, summed up this shift in dynamics for Netizens in his 2006 book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More: “When the tools of production are available to everyone, everyone becomes a producer.” And he is absolutely correct. Local social groups leverage libraries for events and campaigns. Student projects for school are increasingly centered on group-work, especially at the high school and higher levels. The business world thrives on team collaboration. And for job seekers in a tough economy, the resources that librarians can provide are invaluable to those crafting résumés or honing their interview skills. For example, our local libraries host near monthly résumé building workshops, interview training sessions, and other job hunting events.
I have personally seen the value in social-driven classes because I host monthly classes at two local libraries in my area. My classes are not book talks nor do they have anything to do with printed materials of any sort. Both the Park Ridge and Niles libraries in my area leverage the free technology training I offer on topics such as computer/internet security, Windows, Google Apps, and many other technologies people are curious about. The people I train cannot seem to get enough of this knowledge, as the last few classes we have held filled to capacity weeks before the class start-dates. We are even trying to dabble in the realm of offering web-enabled classes with the help of Microsoft’s Lync, so those without easy mobility can tap into the training we are offering, without ever leaving their homes. This is the next era of library outreach that I am interested in cultivating: instead of the library on wheels, the library online!
Is this a testament to the rise in need for digital literacy? It could be. But I think it goes a lot further. Those who visit libraries for the purpose of attending classes such as mine, or to partake in research gathering –– even if it is online only –– are enjoying our new era’s opportunities to broadcast and produce. Self-expression, a basic desire of the human experience from the First Amendment’s “all men” onward, is being met by the library’s forward-thinking preparation. From research papers, to complex group projects, down to collaborative video-making and podcasting. All of these avenues of production are being seen at libraries across the world.
A great deal of this digital desire for expression is being infused at younger ages now. When I was a high school student, working with others on a PowerPoint presentation was an exciting team effort. Now, with Office 365 and Google Apps becoming commonplace at school districts, research papers are being transformed into fully social wikis where students can collaborate, publish, and comment on each other’s work in a fluid, enriching manner. The two-way, and all-way, free-flow of information is beginning in school districts, and working its way outward into the modern workplace.
The power of social era teaching is being taken to levels we never thought imaginable in a traditional textbook classroom.
Should we be surprised that libraries are thriving by replacing their dusty bookshelves with more table space, more group study rooms, and more access to digital resources? If libraries are to continue keeping their relevance with the global public, they will need to continue to stay one step ahead of the digital transformation trends out there.
What can we expect next from libraries? I feel that patrons will be looking for things like video discussion timeslots with librarians, in the same way that Amazon is now offering video-driven support for some Kindle users. Perhaps even online discussions between patrons, being led by librarians, in a conference-call style session that simulates what a book discussion of the 1990s looked like in-person, perhaps facilitated by (free) Google Video chats. It will be exciting to see!
While many would call it heresy to open a library without any actual books, that is exactly the bold move that Bexar County’s BiblioTech library has taken in San Antonio, Texas. It’s calling itself the nation’s first all-digital library. There are zero books and the same number of bookshelves, only rows of computers and eBook reader rentals. The librarian “staff” is two young women.
For anyone who thinks that such all-digital proposals are bound to fail, Bexar County BiblioTech has been showing excellent signs of growth and adoption by the local community. Half of the library’s eBook readers are checked out at any given time, and when in school, finding space on an open computer system is nearly impossible. The library is squarely shooting to meet and exceed a goal of 100,000 visitors in just the first year (Weber, 2014).
Budget minders should take note at another accomplishment of this all-digital library: it cost a fraction of the price of a traditional library. Nearby Austin is building a downtown library for its citizens at a projected cost of $120 million (so far). A nearby suburb close to Bexar County, called Kyle, opened its own traditional library a short time ago for over $1 million more than what BiblioTech cost to build (Weber, 2014).
Traditional book libraries are expensive for many reasons. The extra weight that thousands of books per floor place on building materials means that sturdier, pricier equipment is necessary. Also, a library centered around books can only build out its shelving so high; this means extra lateral space is necessary to house more books and to keep weight spread out. Not to mention all of the supporting systems that maintain the cogs of a book borrowing system: scanning systems, cataloging areas, temporary deposit areas, carting equipment, etc. It’s an expensive proposal that doesn’t start and stop solely with the cost of books.
Computer driven, modern libraries like the BiblioTech in Bexar County can invest in relatively lightweight computer systems that can be packed close together and reused. In such high-traffic scenarios as public libraries, I would estimate average computer lifespan at around 3-5 years. Still, at only $700-800 per machine for a solid business class Windows PC, or the less expensive Chromebook, both are pocket change to what just a couple dozen in-demand novels can cost a library. Internet-line costs are heavily subsidized for public libraries, and internet connections provide a bevy of benefits that enable online resource access to inter-library communication. The possibilities are endless when it comes to bandwidth, unlike the dwindling value that printed books offer as they continue to age and get replaced by newer editions.
Will most libraries move in such a bold and book-less direction in the short term? I doubt it. The transition will be a gradual progression towards digital. But if bastions of the longer term future, like many of today’s college libraries and the Bexar County BiblioTech, continue to lead the way, it won’t surprise me when the bookshelves start coming down at a fast pace.
I’m in no way calling for an end to the library. I’m just calling for an end to the 20th century belief that we can’t succeed without books. The internet didn’t kill the library in the 1990s. eBooks haven’t closed any libraries as of 2014. And as we continue moving forward, the technical modernization of libraries will only help, not hurt, their cause of being defenders of free flowing knowledge.
Modern Netizens have tasted what two-way, interactive, information flow entails, and they can’t seem to get enough of it. Here’s hoping libraries continue to understand they are the keystone to allowing this knowledge dissemination to be as accessible for the poor as it is for the rich.