What do you think of when you think of a library? Books? If so, then you would be in the majority. According to a 2005 survey of library users world-wide, 70% of respondents answered "books" to this open-ended question -- and there was no runner up!(1)
With the recent increase in popularity of electronic books some may be revisiting the question of the mid-nineties, "What will happen to libraries?" It was the Internet that was thought to threaten the value of libraries in the mid-1990s. At the time, Google was expected to be the leading cause of death of the librarian profession.
But that still left books on the shelves. People had not embraced the digital readers of that time, preferring to print out their pages in order to write and mark-up documents. The only acceptable ebooks were reference books, like encyclopedias, that were keyword searchable; html and PDF documents were just not good enough to overcome the PC monitor's visual limitations.
Now, the Kindle, Nook, Sony Reader, smartphones, and the popular iPad, as well as many other various other proprietary readers, are making ebooks very popular. Amazon reported that they sold 180 Kindle versions of titles for every 100 hard copies in a four week period this past summer.(2)
Should the library be afraid of closing its doors? I think not.
First of all, the printed book is not gone and won't be in the foreseeable future. People still love paper books. Even the "bookless" library of Stanford still has some books in print.(3) (Note, this is a highly specialized technical library in which the most relevant information in the field is digital.)
Secondly, if you only associate libraries with books, you are missing the point. Librarians are not necessarily book lovers, they are information professionals who commonly earn masters degrees in Library and Information Science.
Third, libraries are dynamic. They have had to change their work flow processes and re-write job descriptions as often as information has changed packaging ... from clay tablets to ebooks. It just so happens that now, in the information age, this change happens much more rapidly. Historically, this period can only be compared with the invention of the printing press for its effect on the world. The Internet -- the Web 2.0 is Gutenberg's press on steroids. This makes libraries and librarians all the more necessary to help society manage the information overload; to educate and guide its patrons toward information competency that will equip them for lifelong learning.
The library's responsibility to collect, preserve, organize, and make accessible the record of human knowledge, no matter how it is recorded, continues today. And it will continue tomorrow and throughout our lifetime. Librarians know all too well that it is impossible to predict the future (although we try), but we can be sure that it will look different than we imagine.
When it is time for printed books to go away, some of our great-grandchildren will grieve -- just as many of my generation still grieve the passing of vinyl records -- but the message must be separated from the medium to move on to the next generation. We can only be flexible and ready to change.
(1) OCLC, Inc. (2005). Perceptions of Libraries and Information Resources: A Report to the OCLC Membership. Retrieved from http://www.oclc.org/reports/2005perceptions.htm
(2) Amazon Says E-Book Sales Outpace Hardcovers. (2010, July 19). Wall Street Journal (Online). Retrieved from ABI/INFORM Global. (Document ID: 2084408411).
(3) Krieger, L. (2010, May 19) Stanford University Prepares for Bookless library. Mercury News. Retrieved from http://www.mercurynews.com/