So, What Are Libraries Going to Do?

A few days back, some news hit the Internet with all the power and ferocity of a snowflake striking the ground. Some people saw it as the inevitible conclusion to a long, and sometimes rocky, history. Others dismissed it with a “Psh… should’ve happened years ago.” Yet, for the most part, no one seemed to care.

Me, I care, but not for the reasons that you may expect.

The news was about CDs and how they’re probably going away soon. Now, as a musician and music fan, this disturbed me only a little. See, one of the biggest things I miss about the days of vinyl isn’t the warm sound you get from a record, though that’s something I miss quite a bit. You know what’s awesome about records? They’re huge. And you know what a huge record means? It means a huge record sleeve. And what do you put on a huge record sleeve?

You put this on it.

That’s not only beautiful, that’s iconic. The Beatles had this one album, you may have heard of it, where the entire cover was white… and yet that cover became one of the most well known covers in music history. We’re going to lose some of the awesome cover art we’ve grown to love once we no longer buy physical CDs, and I think that’s a little sad.

But that’s not what bothers me.

Libraries are, for the most part, defined by physicality. We talk of our branch, our collection, our books and DVDs, our CDs, our front desks, and our librarians. What do all of those things have in common? Simple, they’re real. You can touch them. Stroke them. You can see them. They’re there. If I ask you to pass me that CD, you could do it – provided there’s a CD in the immediate vicinity and we have the required proximity.

Now, pass me that MP3 file. Oh, excuse me, could you hand me that streaming video please? Hey, mac… toss me that eBook I wanna read the book jacket.

Now you’re looking at me kind of strangely, aren’t you? You can hand someone an MP3 file. You can’t read the book jacket of an eBook. You can’t hold a streaming video.

Yet all of us pretty well accept that this is where things are going. I’m not being hypocritical here either. I watch a lot of NetFlix, I read eBooks, and I listen to MP3 music almost every waking moment. Heck, I don’t even have to buy the MP3 music thanks to services like Spotify or Pandora. And for the most part I don’t want to buy things like books, and CDs, and movies if I don’t have to. I’ve already got enough clutter in my house.

But what about libraries? We live and die on physicality, the very tangible nature of things. I check out DVDs, not streaming movies. I help a patron find stacks of CDs, not MP3s. Indeed, if I do help a patron find MP3s, there’s a fairly decent chance I’m committing some kind of crime.

Now CDs are going away, and soon enough they’ll be gone. I can’t help but think that it won’t be all that long before DVDs join them. For public libraries, losing CDs means that, not only do we lose our music collection and our ability to restock and refresh it, we lose our audiobook collections as well. Those kids books with the CDs? Gone. How about The Short and Dirty Guide to Learning Short and Dirty Words in Japanese? Yeah, it’ll be gone too because it’s a kit that includes four or five CDs of Nippon profanity, kusoyaro.

No, sorry. Wrong Penguin.

What happens when we lose our movie collections because the industry finally gives up on DVDs? eBooks exploded over the last year, what happens when more people want eBooks rather than regular books? Some folks say this won’t happen and all I can do is scratch my head and ask “Why can’t it happen? Look around, it already is.” Penguin just reported a banner year for eBooks sales and the year isn’t even over.

Raise your hand if you own and regularly use a portable CD player. Sure you don’t. You use an iPhone or an iPod or an Android or some other device that probably does a hell of a lot more than play music. Heck my phone works really hard at eliminating the aforementioned collections because I can use it to read, listen, and watch.

Remember these? Of course not. We tend to block out traumatic events in our lives.

Many cities have to bid out services. What happens when some political schmuck gets the awesome, out-of-the-box-thinking idea of “instead of giving all that money to the library to buy movies and books, let’s see what’s bid is for providing the city with certain kinds of content.”? Oh, and before someone chimes in here with “But we provide services to people who can’t afford eReaders, Internet, and NetFlix!” all I can say is sure we do.

We also provide comfy sleeping areas and improvised bathing facilities for semi-crazy homeless people. Do you think the politicians care much about that? (Hold your emails. I know that not all homeless people are crazy, especially in this economy. Let’s face it, I worked in a public library a block and a half from the county jail. I know what kind of people can frequent certain public libraries.)

Here’s some hard reality. The people who can afford things like Kindles, NetFlix, an who are purchasing eBooks and buying music from the Internet – they’re not as likely to come to the library for any of our stuff. However, since they do have money, they’re more likely to donate to political campaigns and they’re far more likely to vote than a poor person who can’t afford any of that stuff, let alone campaign donations. It’s getting even harder thanks to the GOP and their efforts to make jolly damn sure that poor people won’t vote. Couple that with a conservative bent to cut services, and you have yourself a recipe for library obsolescence in as little as ten years.

And for all of those who don’t think anything like this could ever possibly happen – today, reality showed up to give libraries another boot in the ass.

So the question is… what do we do?


  1. Well, this is depressing. I’m used to the idea that the average person on the street equates libraries with artifacts, but it’s a shame when I see librarians doing it as well. A library is NOT a collection of artifacts. That’s called a bookshop or a record shop. If we as a profession are defined by the tools that we use then it does make sense to assume that when those tools go away, so do libraries and librarians.

    However, that’s not what we’re about is it? (Does this really need saying? Apparently so.) We are there to support a community, provide authoritative information, help our members in whatever way works best; we’re not there to dole out books! This means that we help our users to achieve what needs doing – they want a blog, let’s help them create one. They want to use a Kindle? Let’s show them how to self publish. Students lack even the basics on how to search the net – we’re there to teach them. A local business needs to find out information – go in there and help them. People are using smartphones? Cool, let’s create an app. People want to read, then create library reading circles, get involved with social media, provide… oh for heavens sake, I could go on. You either get it or you don’t.

    That you don’t is profoundly disturbing.

    1. I think I get it just fine, as do many in our profession. The problem here is that our profession isn’t in control of itself, and never has been. We’ve always answered to higher political powers who, especially in recent times, show little interest in self publishing or educating students.

      So while I appreciate, and agree, with your ideas here, many libraries are too strapped for money and employees to hold classes on self publishing. Library IT departments don’t have the money, time, or resources to put toward app development for at least two major mobile platforms.

      And I feel a key point was missed there. Yes, we are certainly here to support a community, but again you’re talking about smartphones, and Kindles, and stuff like that. There is still a significant portion of the population who cannot afford such things and, when we lose out… so do they.

      1. Libraries that demonstrate that they are more than book warehouses not only survive, but they thrive as well. If the library is associated entirely with the artifact and the librarian with the tools, not the results, then they are in a dangerous position, and I’ll agree with you that we’ve probably not spoken up as loudly as we should have. Maybe it’s time we did, by pointing out that if people want a literate society, cutting libraries isn’t the best way to go, as one example.

        It’s not necessary to hold classes – though it would be great if we could. We can however help by pointing out that there are other solutions and ways of doing things. It’s sad to see you putting obstacles in front of yourself though – if you can’t do something for two major platforms, start with one. And if you can’t do one, then work with other libraries and pool resources.

        And y’know, I’m not actually talking just about smartphones and ebook readers. They’re fine and dandy, but the library is there to support everyone in the community, both those who can come into a library and those who can’t. We need to be able to provide access to computers, to show people how to search properly and so on… but – and this is the really important point – what we’re looking at here is the result of a process, and the ability to change lives, and nothing to do with the ‘woe is me, we can’t give them books or CDs’.

  2. Thought: Libraries will exist as the loci coerulei of the cultural corpus, dedicated solely to responding to the question: “What is to become of libraries?”
    That, and providing rest-rooms.

  3. “We talk of our branch, our collection, our books and DVDs, our CDs, our front desks, and our librarians. What do all of those things have in common? Simple, they’re real. You can touch them. Stroke them.” – If you touch or stroke the librarians you will probably be asked to leave the building. On a more serious note, you need to evolve with your patrons. Help them figure things out. Be on their side of the counter (preferably do away with the counter). Lots of people are very busy and don’t have time to keep up with all of the tools they need to learn to get to what they want. In the old days we were intermediaries who looked after collections. Librarians can be enablers working alongside people, building information skills and involvement in democratic society.

  4. I think the point in this post is when the content changes so does the income stream to support it. I happen to agree. It is already clear in some communuties that have cut back on services and employees becasue of budgets. Who contrrols the budget? Politicians do. Electronic media or otherwise will still cost money and when the population reaches a certain threshold of using their own resources rather than the library, then the politician’s will certainly allocate the monies elswhere. Ten years I think is a little soon but as technologies expand and change this could be an inevitable conclusion for some libraries.

    Will some adapt? Most certainly. But many will slowly lose the stream of income that supports them and close. It is already happening.

    In our district there is a small on room library that serves a small community. It is just like school after school for the young children. It sits next to a senior center and provides the entire district’s collection at their disposal. It is in a low-income community. Last season of political changes have almost shut its door. It is now only open 2 days per week and only from 1PM to 6PM. Hardly fulfilling the communities needs. It was political pressure to change these services and luckily community pressure to keep it open the two days or it would have closed. How much longer will it last?

    This is only one example. Look around I’m a betting man and I’ll bet that within a hundred miles there is an example similar. The point of this post is who is controlling the funds and the materials selections will follow. If your local political leaders see the value of electronic media, your collection will most likely survive and thrive with the changes. But if it does not, then who knows?

  5. How is it so many folks, librarians at that, swallowed this article wholesale and helped to perpetuate such hokum? CD’s are going to be phased out by 2012 because a badly written article in an underground music magazine said it heard from somebody, somewhere, it was going to happen?


    What authority does the person writing this have about the issue? What are their credentials? Are they qualified to write it? Can they be contacted? How detailed is the article and what kind of coverage does it offer to back up its claims? How reputable is the site the article originated from? What qualifications does Side-Line have to write such an article?

    These are some of the most basic criteria for evaluating a website and the fact that the Side-Line article fails to meet any of them is almost blatantly transparent.

    A simple check on Lexus-Nexus turns up an article from USA Today on 5/18/11: “CDs may be harder to find, but they’re still selling.” In the article we learn that while CDs sale fell 19% in 2010, they still bring in more revenue than downloads. Additionally, we have quotes from the RIAA, Nielsen and Amazon all assuring us that CDs are not going anywhere fast, and certainly not by the end of 2012.

    And while it took a while, a trusted mainstream publication with a long history of music industry coverage, New Music Express, published an article on 11/23/11 (“Are Major Labels About To Abandon The CD? Er, No”) which, I hope, finally put this mini-meme to rest. The author, Luke Davis, ends his article by asking, “why bother with actual journalism online, when you can guff out a load of wafty half-arsed nonsense, and watch the traffic roll in.”

    1. There are opinions all over the board, including yours. But lets take a look at some facts, since you seem to desire some:

      * Many laptops and computers are starting to abandon optical drives. Apple’s most successful laptop, the MacBook Air, doesn’t even have one – period. If you want an optical drive you buy it separately. With the coming ultrabooks that will compete with this incredibly successful and desirable type of PC, you’ll see even fewer optical drives in computers over the next year.

      * Ford is going to be phasing out in-dash CD players. I fully expect other auto manufacturers to follow suit. Think of how much money they’d save by taking out a CD player and installing a five cent, 3.5mm audio jack?

      * Looking to the music industry for a realistic business model is like looking to Coyote and Road Runner cartoons for realistic depictions of physics. In any other business, with any other product, anything that’s lost 19% of its sales in one year is called a “failing product.”

      * If you’re referring to the article in Side Line magazine as coming from a underground magazine, that’s fair. Keep in mind that this underground magazine has been around for 22 years now, so it’s not exactly a fly by night publication, for what that’s worth.

      * One correction for those who want to follow up on the article you mention, and it is a good article, is that the writer’s name is Luke Lewis, not Luke Davis. Took some time to find it. Here’s the link for those who want rebuttal (

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