June 30, 2022

Are Libraries Doomed?

John Guy LaPlante

I read something startling the other day.  Amazon.com, among other things, is our biggest retailer of books.  Bigger than Barnes & Noble even.  But last year it sold more e-books than print books.  Wow!

A recent report by the Pew Foundation said that 19 percent of adults in the U.S.have read an e-book.  I’m amazed the percentage is so high.

Some of you may already be buying e-books.  Some of you – even as passionate readers of  books as we know them, meaning books printed on paper – may not have a clue about e-books.

E-books are shorthand for electronic books, also known as digital book.  They are books meant to be read not on paper, but on a computer screen.  Or more recently, on specialized devices called e-book readers (e-readers).  In fact, these have become a rage.

E-books have been around for a decade, maybe two decades.  In fact, undoubtedly since the beginning of word processing programs.  Microsoft Word, notably.

If you could write a letter or a report or an article on your computer with Microsoft Word, why not a book? Sure.  But such a book wasn’t called an e-book back then.  It was just a long Microsoft Word document (.doc).  You saved it on your computer.

If you wanted to send it to somebody, you did it with a floppy disk and later, a CD.   The widespread arrival of the Internet and email made it possible to send it even thousands of miles in a minute or two.

Then Adobe developed the pdf—the portable digital format.   Very important because it preserved your document or article–whatever you created—exactly as you wrote it.  With the same typeface, same type size, same formatting (italics, paragraphing, and so on), the same everything in every detail.  A remarkable and wonderful breakthrough.

But—this just occurred to me—if you are reading this, you know a lot about this already.  After all, you are reading this as a digital file.  Suddenly I feel very dumb.

Well, it’s less than five years ago—Nov. 19, 2007,  that the first e-book reader appeared.  The Kindle.  That was an invention by Amazon.com.  It sold for $399.  It was sensational.  It  sold out practically overnight.

It was also wonderful.  It fit in your pocket.  You could store more books on it than you could read in a lifetime.  You could buy them fron Amazon and receive them on your Kindle in just a couple of minutes.

It was as significant an invention as that of movable, reusable type by Gutenberg in 1447.  The Kindle and the e-book changed our reading habits forever.  It turned the book world topsy-turvy.

Today there are six Kindle models, varying in features and price.  The lowest-price is $79 and the top of the line  $199.  Incredible how the  prices have dropped.

In fact, there are numerous e-book makers and there are more than 30 different brands on the market. There is even the extraordinary kind called a tablet.  So-called because it is considerably bigger and lets you access not only e-books, music, photos. movies and connect to the Internet and perform other miracles,

The most sophisticated is Apple’s Ipad—a groundbreaking invention by itself.  A full-fledged computer.  It, too, has been selling like hotcakes.  The price keep changing—about $500 on up depending on features. Amazon selling for $600 and considerably more, depending.

In fact, Amazon’s $199 unit – the Kindle Fire – is a tablet, designed to cut into Apple’s market.  It has been said that Amazon prices its units even below cost.  All to stimulate sales of e-books.

As some of you know, in the last six years I have written three books.  Print books.  I also wrote one 50 years ago, but let’s forget that.  I would have written more books, I think, but life interfered.

And in the spirit of full disclosure I want to tell you all three will soon be e-books.  Why?  It’s absolutely essential if I want to make them available to the greatest number of readers possible.   And like all writers, I write to be read.

I never, never thought I would  own an e-book reader.  No need.  Now I  own two.  Use them hardly at all. Was intrigued by the technology, I guess..

Now back to my main topic today.  Public libraries.  I think they are imperiled.  I say this although I’m aware public libraries have more users than ever.  Yes, it’s true.  Even in this digital age.

National Library Week came and passed just recently.  April 7 to 13.  I missed it somehow.  What a shame.  National Library Week?  Hey,who notices?  Who cares?  Well, I do.  Libraries mean so much to me.

I’m worried about their future.  Not for myself.  The day will come before long when I’ll no longer need my library card.  But I’m worried for library lovers everywhere.

This is why I have gone on at length about  e-books.  Because I realize that if this e-book phenomenon continues … and certainly it will … it will kill public libraries.  Yes, kill them.

Well, certainly libraries as we know them.  Just as Amazon.com is killing off neighborhood bookstores as we know them.  Even giant bookstores.  Just consider that the giant chain Borders just went under.  For sure, a casualty of Amazon.com and the e-book revolution.  What a loss.

Just consider also: not only are books becoming digital.  So are newspapers—and look at how our newspapers have declined— because they began producing e-newspapers as well.  And then did the stupid thing of making them available free.  Now the papers are smartening up and beginning to charge for their electronic editions.

The changes are beyond belief.  Even textbooks are becoming e-textbooks.  Tablets like the Ipad are becoming standard everyday necessities for just about any man or woman who has to read and write in order to earn their living.

In fact, look at what just happened to the venerable, absolutely wonderful Encyclopedia Britannica.  Its 30 or so hefty volumes take up whole shelves on a bookcase.  Britannica just printed its last edition.  It, too, is going digital.

I gave my son Mark a set when he married just seven or eight years ago.  I love to see it on display in his living room when I visit.

But I don’t think he’s ever used it, and he is a university professor and a lover of books.  Why?  Because it’s so much easier for him to access this wealth of information online.  He does this online every day.

Still I’m glad he has the big set.  I consider it a sort of statue that attests to one of his core values.

The impending doom of our public libraries saddens me beyond words.  I love libraries.

What’s the problem?  Well, now libraries are providing e-books.  You can download one for two weeks, say. Free.  The libraries are even teaching people how to do this.

Aren’t they making the same terrible mistake that the newspapers did—committing suicide by being so generous?

Gradually the libraries will acquire more and more e-book titles.  The more e-books published, the more e-books the libraries will want to stock.  Library users will check out more and more e-books.  The libraries’ budget for e-books will swell.

The process will snowball.  The borrowing of print books will decline.  In time, the books in the stacks will gather dust.  In time, only e-books will be available.

And remember: e-books don’t take up space on shelves. They are stored in a computer. You could put a whole library of e-books in a computer.  Who is going to need a great, big library anymore?

This won’t happen next year.  But it will happen.

Many of you will say, John, how can you be against progress?  I recognize that this is progress.  But frankly, I’m glad I won’t be around to see the demise of the libraries.  That’s such a painful thought.

I consider the public library the most important institution in any community.  The only thing more important to me is the supermarket.  I admit this.  As much as I love books and reading, I love to eat.  But libraries come next.

I have visited hundreds of libraries.  Make that thousands. I’m serious.  All over theUnited States and numerous other countries.  I measure a community by its library.  A good library means this is an enlightened community.

A big thing I like about living here in the Connecticut Estuary is that fine libraries surround me.  My own Deep River Public Library, but also Essex and Ivoryton and Chester and Old Saybrook and Old Lyme and even farther.  And know what?  I get to all of them.  Some more often than others, of course.

Yes, how lucky we are.  Connecticut has one of the best library systems in the country.  I know.  Let me give you one example.

In Connecticut I can go to any library in the state, the Sharon Public Library up in the northwest corner, say, borrow a book by showing by Deep River card, and take it home.  To return it, I don’t have to take it back to Sharon.  I just return it to the Deep River Library.  It will get it returned to Sharon.

I spent much of the winter in Newport Beach, Calif.  Beautiful community.  Beautiful library.  I have a card for it.  One day I was in the Huntington Beach Library, just two towns north.  I saw a book I liked.  I wasn’t sure Newport Beach would have it.  I took it to a librarian and showed my Newport Beach card.  “Oh, we don’t do that here,” she said.

I go to a library just about every day.  Let me rewrite that sentence: I enjoy a library just about every day.  I will go to a library today.  I’m sure you are asking yourself, “What kind of nut is this LaPlante?”

Blame my Maman.  I was 8 or 9.  She was a young immigrant gal, French from Québec and woefully poor in English back then.  Working 44 hours a week in the big brick textile factory down the street as Papa struggled to get his little linoleum store going.  That was in Pawtucket, R.I.  That’s where I was born.

We spoke French at home.  I began to learn English only when I went out to play with the neighbor kids.  Began studying it in first grade, of course.

One day she took me on the bus downtown.  Led me up through the bronze doors of the Pawtucket (Slater) Public Library.  Managed to explain she wanted a card for me.  The nice lady librarian made that happen. then showed us the kids’ section.  I walked out with a book.  I don’t remember its title.  But I remember I didn’t understand all the words.  Maman took me back again.  I took out another book.  I became hooked.  I still am.

That was about the time she also signed me up at the Boy’s Club for swimming lessons.  Swimming also became one of my big interests.  I tell you this only because it tells you so much about my Maman.

Bill Moiles said it perfectly for me back in 1958, I think it was.  I was a rookie reporter at the Worcester Telegram.  He was a star reporter turned columnist.  I feasted on his columns.  One I have never forgotten because I agreed so heartily.

Those were the awful days when we feared the U.S.S.R. would drop an A-bomb on us.  Popular Mechanics and other magazines were telling us how to build underground shelters in our backyard and stock them with canned soups and flash lights and toilet paper.

“The bomb may fall,” Moiles wrote. “Catastrophic for sure.  But if the Public Library survives, we have a chance.”

I knew exactly what he meant. It’s all there, on those shelves.  Everything we need to know.  It holds true for any blast in the future.

The Pawtucket Public Library of my youth provided only two services.  It lent out books and let you come in and read papers and magazines.  Free of charge.  That’s what all libraries did back then.

This is the right moment to tip my hat to the great Andrew Carnegie.  He made his millions in the steel business.  But he went down in history as our greatest philanthropist because he used much of his fortune to get public libraries built all over the country—nearly 3,000 of them, most of which still exist, of course. Free public libraries.  What a sensational idea.

As we know, today libraries don’t provide only books. They specialize in “media”.  This is the new word that covers books, magazines, newspapers, music and movie disks, audio books, maps, and of late, e-books—information in all its forms.

They often have a children’s library, or a genealogical room, or a map collection.  Provide research assistance.  Host meetings.  Provide free computers for us to use, connected to the Internet, mind you. Provide photocopying and scanning services.  Operate used-book stores as a fund-raiser for themselves.  Some serve coffee; even have a cafe or even a restaurant.

Often city libraries have branches, even a library on wheels or a service for the housebound.

In all this, I must mention one more grand thing about public libraries.  They are such wonderful, welcoming places.  As we know, anybody is free to come in, sit down, and enjoy all the goodies.  How wonderful.

But there has been one sad development.  In some big libraries…urban libraries, for instance, even smaller ones such as in New London and New Haven … often you will come in and encounter many street people, homeless folks.

On the one hand, how good it is that they have such a safe and comfortable and interesting refuge.  On the other hand, some of these unfortunates–definitely not all–are slovenly and smelly.  Maybe it’s wonderful to welcome them in.  Maybe bad.  I understand both points of view.  Who will come up with a solution fair to the libraries and these poor folks?

Two months ago I was in Las Vegas.  Of course, I had to visit its municipal library.  Quite big.  Modern.   As I arrived, I noticed half a dozen men hanging around the front door, unkempt, smoking butts.  Inside, so many people that it was hard to find a chair.  Many like those I just mentioned.

Yet many were actually reading books.  I did see some who I thought were just putting on an act, hoping to fool the librarian at the desk.

But I walked down a hall and found a class in session.  Crowded with about 25 people.  The teacher was teaching English as a second language.  Some in there looked down and out, or close to it.  But I studied them through the door window.  All looked intent, studious.  And I had to think, How wonderful, this library…

Two weeks ago I was visiting in Sunrise, Fla.  It’s a very nice suburb of Fort Lauderdale.  Fine, new library.  I walked in at 10:15, shortly after it opened.

I noticed the public computer section.  It had about 20 computers.  Half of them were already being used. More than half by blacks, all adults (schools were in session).  Sunrise is a very predominantly white community.  I assumed most of these folks at the computers did not own one.

As I walked by them, I noticed most were doing serious things—I mean, not playing games or watching porno.  Again I thought, how wonderful this library!

I bless Benjamin Franklin for his brilliant idea of starting a lending library in Philadelphia.  He was the pioneer.  Other communities did the same.  That’s how our public libraries started..

This is the right moment to tip my hat to the great philanthropist Andrew Carnegie (1935-1919).  He made his millions in the steel business.  Became the richest man in the world.

But he went down in history as a great man because he used much of his fortune to get libraries built all over the country—nearly 3,000 of them, most of which survive and have prospered.  Free public libraries,  What a sensational idea.

I have a story about another philanthropist for you. I was in the new, beautiful library in Québec City.  I asked a librarian if I could use a computer.  Showed her my passport.

“Obi, Monsieur!” she said with a big smile and pointed to one.  “You are American.  Our computers were made possible by your Monsieur Bill Gates and Madame Gates.  Their Foundation. ”

Bill and Melinda Gates have done this with their Microsoft money in many libraries and in numerous countries, it seems.

I have a bit more to say about them.  As some of you know, until two years or so ago, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Ukraine.  I expected to find a few libraries there, but it has thousands.  It’s a civilized country. But most are way behind the times.

While I was over there, I read that the Gates Foundation was providing $27 million over five year to expand the use of Internet in the country.  They were doing this by providing computers and funding Internet services in libraries all over the country.  The first priority: to give instruction.

In essence, libraries are not about books and paper.  They’re about knowledge and information and literature and science and civilization and the life of the mind.   This is their purpose.  They achieve it with the books they lend us for free plus all the other services they provide, nearly all free.

The day when e-books will take over is coming fast.  As you know, Google is attempting to convert every book in the world into an-ebook.  Has already converted millions of print books.

This is 2012. Still 88 years left in this century.  I believe this sweeping change will occur long before 2100. Who is going to need print books?

And no big library will be needed just to store e-books.  They are just digital files.  They can all be saved in a computer.  In fact, they may all be safe on a digital “cloud” somewhere, to use a totally new digital concept.

ii) Librarians as a breed are not only famously caring and generous and serving.  They are very intelligent. They have cleverly adapted and made their libraries better for us since the very first.

Just think – they switched from candles to oil lamps to electric bulbs.  Some are now putting in solar panels. They went from a list of books maintained in a pad to massive card catalogs and the brilliant Dewey Decimal System.  Now even the smallest has a computer on which you can find any book easier and faster—even borrow one from another library.

Our librarians will find a way to make life better for us.  Their working in a library building as we know such is doubtful.  There won’t be a library for us to go to.

We’ll be ordering e-books and other media from them by computer.  They’ll send them to us by computer. Will do everything by computer.  Probably we’ll never see a librarian face to face.  In fact, the process may be automated.

I’m optimistic.  I’m all for progress. But I’m glad I won’t see this progress.  I treasure my memories of my good times in public libraries big and small, near and far.  Good times beyond count.

But do you think I’m wrong in these speculations?