By Bill Frayer

The Future of Libraries



Bill-Frayer-2010OK.  I admit it.  I have a Kindle and I love it.  In fact, we now have two Kindles so we can each read any e-book we want without having to wait our turn.  We can download e-books from our library in Maine, even when we’re in Mexico.  All three of my own poetry books are available on Amazon as Kindle books. 

So, this is where I begin to feel a little guilty. As most people my age, I love real books. I still read them and enjoy the feel of a paper book in my hands. And I love libraries. We visited the Library of Congress this spring.  All those books; how wonderful! But, what is happening to the publication and availability of real books?  What will happen to libraries? People like me, buying e-books, may be changing the literary landscape forever.  Will paper books continue to be available?  Will libraries still be wonderful collections of paper books?  Alas, I fear not. 

David Bell, writing in The New Republic in July makes me feel a little better about this. He suggests that although digital publishing is changing the nature of our reading forever, that libraries will still serve a critical function. Libraries are, at their essence, incredible adult-education institutions. They are places where people can go to learn new things, learn about world events, and of course, find books to read. 

Now, in our digital age, we no longer do research in the annual volumes of The Readers’ Guide to Periodical Literature.  We no longer need to go to libraries to look in Almanacs to find sports records, world capitals or other miscellaneous information. We don’t even need to go to libraries to find books.  So why do we need libraries, and why will we continue to need them?

Bell argues that libraries will not diminish or disappear as a result of digital reading. They will, he suggests, serve the same functions in different ways. They will adapt, as they always have, and will continue to facilitate lifelong learning and the needs of adult readers. 

By embracing the new digital nature of information and reading, libraries can, and will, continue to provide resources for many of those who cannot enjoy the benefits of the digital age in their homes. Some people still have no adequate Internet access at home. Or they do not understand how to access digital information, how to apply for jobs or find apartments online. Libraries, with their public computer access, and their staff, can help many people access and navigate our contemporary digital age. 

Will the stacks of moldy books disappear? Over time, probably they will.  But digital collections like Google Books will continue to preserve these editions.  Libraries will provide digital access without the stacks. They will continue to lend e-books to those with e-readers, and I imagine they will find ways to provide digital books to those who cannot afford to buy e-readers. 

As adult education institutions, they will likely offer seminars on topics of interest to their communities. They will offer discussion forums, lectures, and film series. They might offer artists and author forums to share and discuss their works. 

Libraries have always existed to make information and culture available to the public. They will, perhaps sadly, not be the same musty-smelling places they have been. However, they will adapt and evolve with the digital revolution to continue to provide access to everyone who needs information.  You can count on that.  No need to worry about the future of libraries!


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