Question: As physical books go away, and computers and smart devices take their place, at what point does a library stop being a library, and start becoming something else?
Somewhere in the middle of this question lies the nagging fear and anxiety that we see brimming to the top among library insiders.
People who think libraries are going away simply because books are going digital are missing the true tectonic shifts taking place in the world of information.
Libraries are not about books. In fact, they were never about books.
Libraries exist to give us access to information. Until recently, books were one of the more efficient forms of transferring information from one person to another. Today there are 17 basic forms of information that are taking the place of books, and in the future there will be many more...
Gas Station Maps
As a young child, I was enamored with the free maps I could pick up at gas stations. Over time I had collected maps for nearly every state and some of the Canadian Provinces.
Along with the early days of the automobile and a generally confusing road system came the need for maps. Oil companies quickly realized that people who knew where they were going often traveled more, and consequently bought more gasoline.
Over time, anyone driving a car soon came to expect free maps whenever they stopped for gas, and companies like Rand McNally, H.M. Gousha, and General Drafting turned out millions to meet demand.
In the early 1970s, when I was first learning the freedom of owning a car, I couldn’t imagine a time when these maps would not be an integral part of my life.
Today, as GPS and smartphones give us turn-by-turn instructions on where to go, printed road maps exist as little more than collectibles for people wishing to preserve their memories of a fading era.
Are printed books likely to go through a similar dwindling of popularity?
Our Relationship with Information is Changing
As the form and delivery system for accessing information changes, our relationship with information also begins to morph.
If we treat this like other types relationships, we can begin to see where we’ve come from and where we’re going.
Gone are the days when we were simply “flirting” with our data, occasionally glancing at it, hoping it would pay attention to us as well.
In school we had more of a “dating” relationship, lugging books around, hoping they would impart their knowledge even though the parts that got read were few and far between. Much like dating a popular person, we became known by the books under our arms.
Once we started working, we became “married” to a relatively small universe of information that surrounded our job, company, and industry. People who became immersed in their particular universe became recognized as experts and quickly rose to the top.
Today we are beginning to have “affairs” with other exotic forms of information such as social networks and video chatting. All of these new forms of information seem much more alive and vibrant than the book world we had been married to for the past century.
Alone, on some dusty shelf, lie the books we had once been married to. On some level, many of us feel like we were cheating by abandoning our past, never getting closure for a divorce that left us with mixed loyalties haunting us on both a conscious and subconscious level.
If you think this is a crazy analogy, many will argue that its not. If anything, information is the heart and soul of our emotional self. Even though we may not feel it touching us like a finger pressing on our arm, a great piece of literature has a way of caressing our mind, adding fire to our inner rage, sending chills down the length of our spine, and giving us a euphoric high as we join our hero to reach a climactic conclusion.
Books of the past remain the physical manifestation of this kind of experience, and without their presence, a part of us feels lost.
The transition to other forms of information has been happening for decades. Once we are able to get past the emotion connection we have to physical books, we begin to see how the information world is splintering off into dozens of different categories.
Here is a list of 17 primary categories of information that people turn to on a daily basis. While they are not direct replacements for physical books, they all have a way of eroding our reliance on them. There may be more that I’ve missed, but as you think through the following media channels, you’ll begin to understand how libraries of the future will need to function:
- Games – 135 million Americans play video games an hour or more each month. In the U.S. 190 million households will use a next-generation video game console in 2012, of which 148 million will be connected to the Internet. The average gamer is 35 years old and they have been playing games on average for 13 years.
- Digital Books – In January, USA Today reported a post-holiday e-book “surge,” with 32 of the top 50 titles on its most recent list selling more copies in digital format than in print. Self-published e-books now represent 20-27% of digital book sales.
- Audio Books - Audiobooks are the fastest growing sector of the publishing industry. There is currently a shortage of audiobooks worldwide as publishers race to meet demand. Only 0.75% (not even 1%!) of Amazon's book catalog has so far been converted to audio. Last year more than $1 billion worth of audiobooks were sold in the U.S. alone. Over 5,000 public libraries now offer free downloadable audio books.
- Newspapers – Online readership of newspapers continues to grow, attracting more than 113 million readers in January 2012. Industry advertising revenues, however, continue to drop and are now at the same level as they were in 1950, when adjusted for inflation.
- Magazines – The U.S. magazine industry is comprised of 5,146 businesses publishing a total of 38,000 titles. Time spent reading newspapers or magazines combined is roughly 3.9 hours per week. Nearly half of all magazine consumption takes place with the TV on. The magazine industry is declined 3.5% last year.
- Music – According to Billboard’s “2011 Music Industry Report,” consumers bought 1.27 billion digital tracks last year, which accounted for 50.3% of all music sales. Digital track sales increased 8.5% in 2011. Meanwhile, physical sales declined 5%. According to Apple, there are an estimated 38 million songs in the known music universe.
- Photos – Over 250 million photos are uploaded to Facebook every day
- Videos – Cisco estimates that over 90% of all Internet content will be video by 2015. Over 100,000 'years' of Youtube video are viewed on Facebook every year. Over 350 million Youtube videos are shared on Twitter every year. Netflix streams 2 billion videos per quarter.
- Television - According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day, and owns 2.2 televisions. An estimated 41% of our information currently comes from television.
- Movies – There are currently over 39,500 movie screens in the U.S. with over 4,500 of them converted to 3D screens. The average American goes to 6 movies per year. However, almost one-third of U.S. broadband Households use the Internet to watch movies on their TV sets, according to Park Associates. That number is growing, with 4% of U.S. households buying a video media receiver, such as Apple TV and Roku, over the 2011 holiday season
- Radio – Satellite radio subscribers, currently at 20 million, is projected to reach 35 million by 2020. At the same time, Internet radio is projected to reach 196 million listeners by 2020. These combined equal the same number as terrestrial radio listeners.
- Blogs - There are currently over 70 million WordPress blogs and 39 million Tumblr blogs worldwide.
- Podcasts – According to Edison Research, an estimated 70 million Americans have listened to a podcast. The podcast audience has migrated from being predominantly “early adopters” to more closely resembling mainstream media consumers.
- Apps – There are now over 1.2 million smartphone apps with over 35 billion downloads. Sometime this year the number of apps will exceed the number of books in print – 3.2 million.
- Presentations – Leading the charge in this area, SlideShare is the world's largest community for sharing presentations. With 60 million monthly visitors and 130 million pageviews, it is amongst the most visited 200 websites in the world.
- Courseware – The OpenCourseware movement has been catching fire with Apple leading the charge. iTunesU currently has over 1,000 Universities participating from 26 countries. Their selection of classes, now exceeding the 500,000 mark, have had over 700 million downloads. They recently announced they were expanding into the K-12 market.
- Personal Networks – Whether its LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Google+ or Pinterest, people are becoming increasingly reliant on their personal network for information. There are now over 2.8 billion social media profiles, representing around half of all Internet users worldwide. LinkedIn now has over 147 million members. Facebook has over 1.1 billion members and accounts for 20% of all pageviews on the Internet. Google+ currently has over 90 million users.
Each of these forms of information has a place in future libraries. Whether or not physical books decline or even disappear has little relevance in the overall scheme of future library operations.
Steve Jobs introducing iCloud
The Coming Era of the Library Cloud
In June 2011, Steve Jobs made his final public appearance at a software developer’s conference to unveil iCloud; a service that many believe will become his greatest legacy.
As Jobs envisioned it, the entire universe of songs, books, movies, and a variety of other information products would reside in iCloud and could be “pulled down” whenever someone needed to access it.
People would initially purchase the product through iTunes, and Apple would keep a copy of it in iCloud. So each subsequent purchase by other Apple users would be a quick download directly from iCloud.
Whether or not the information universe develops in the cloud like Jobs has envisioned, libraries will each need to develop their own cloud strategy for the future.
As an example, at a recent library event I was speaking at, one librarian mentioned she had just ordered 50 Kindles and 50 Nooks for their library. At the time, she was dealing with the restrictions from publishers that only allowed them to load each digital book on 10 devices. So which devices get the content in the end?
Over time, it’s easy to imagine a library with 350 Kindles, 400 iPads, 250 Nooks, 150 Xooms, and a variety of other devices. Keeping track of which content is loaded on each device will become a logistical nightmare. However, having each piece of digital content loaded in the cloud and restricting it to 10 simultaneous downloads will be far more manageable.
This snapshot in time could have been preserved by your local library.
The Value of the Community Archive
What was your community like in 1950, or for that matter in 1850 or even 1650? What role did your community play during the Civil War? How active was it during the Presidential elections of 1960? How did local people react to the bombing of Pearl Harbor?
We have access to plenty of history books that give us the “official story” of all the major events throughout history. But understanding the intersection of our city, our village, or our community with these earth-changing events has, for the most part, never been captured or preserved. In the future, this will become one of the most valuable functions provided by a community library.
Libraries have always had a mandate to archive the records of their service area, but it has rarely been pursued with more than passing enthusiasm. Archives of city council meetings and local history books made the cut, but few considered the library to be a good photo or video archive.
Over time, many of the newspapers, radio, and television stations will begin to disappear. As these businesses lose their viability, their storerooms of historical broadcast tapes and documents will need to be preserved. More specifically, every radio broadcast, newspaper, and television broadcast will need to be digitized and archived.
With the advent of iCloud and other similar services libraries will want to expand their hosting of original collections, and installing the equipment to digitize the information. The sale of this information to the outside world through an iTunes-like service could become a valuable income stream for libraries in the future.
Libraries, much like any living breathing organism, will have to adapt to the complex nature of the ever-changing world of information. As information becomes more sophisticated and complex, so will libraries.
Libraries are here to stay because they have a survival instinct. They have created a mutually dependent relationship with the communities they serve, and most importantly, they know how to adapt to the changing world around them.
I am always impressed with the creative things being done in libraries. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.” There are a lot of beautiful dreams taking place that will help form tomorrow’s libraries.
Author of “Communicating with the Future” – the book that changes everything