This time for sure?

Maybe it’s time for another round, and another round is what we seem to be getting.

Blake Carver writes a long, heartfelt essay at LISNews coming down on the “digital side”–with a series of “ten years will fix all that” responses to the questions he’s inclined to raise, an assertion that the young’uns are all deserting print, and the sense that the library’s place will be lost. (That’s a really bad summary of a long piece, which has already had 27 comments. I’ve printed it out–too long to read and think about otherwise–and will probably prepare some sort of commentary later, either here or in C&I. This isn’t it: This is just a preliminary musing. That’s why there’s no link.)

Daniel Chudnov is quoted with a five-year “be there or be square” clarion call, based on everything being all-digital all the time.

Update on the paragraph above: Dan takes exception to being misquoted–although, if you read the paragraph above, I don’t actually quote Dan. I picked it up from a third party. But now that Dan’s done an extended post, well, go read his post. Maybe he doesn’t think it’s a “this time for sure” post, but I certainly do. As to my abilities as a futurist–I’ve always said that I don’t pretend to be a prophet. I don’t remember a conversation about Amazon (I remember Dan pushing me very hard to try to convince RLG to make some money-making software open access). If I was dead wrong about Amazon–well, fine. I’m wrong about lots of things. Possibly including this one…but I don’t think so. Now, back to the post…

I think I’ve seen one or two others, and of course there are those who keep predicting “ten years from now” in the hope that they’ll eventually be right. Somehow, sales of Harry Potter do nothing to discourage the “young’uns don’t read print” meme; somehow, growing use of American public libraries by all ages and classes doesn’t matter (or isn’t real, or they’re all just checking computers, or something); somehow…well, this time, for sure.

I can’t prove otherwise. Nobody can. It has the same feeling as the prevailing wisdom of 1992.

I do know that I got back to my own public library a week ago (Sunday afternoon). It was busy. I’ve never seen it any other way. Sure, three or four people were browsing the surprisingly large DVD collection. Sure, a dozen (maybe 20) people were working on computers. But there were also at least 50 or 60 people in the adult stacks, a fair number over in the children’s areas, solid traffic at the two selfcheck machines, a short but steady line for the human checkout…

And it was all pretty typical. Loads of people taking out books and bringing them back, lots of others taking advantage of other resources, digital and otherwise. I saw kids, teenagers, young adults, and every age from there through retirement.

Maybe it’s time to forget about print, celebrate the all-digital near future, and give up on the services and spaces libraries provide so they can be hip to the future. But maybe, just maybe, things will continue to move along in complex and unpredictable ways–and those 300 million Harry Potter books (along with all the others that make young adult and children’s publishing healthy) aren’t imaginary.

As I say, this is just a preliminary musing. More later, I think.

Second update, Wednesday, 10/12:
No question: Blog “conversations” are a little peculiar in that the blogger gets to nominate the topics–and can warp the conversation by deleting comments, failing to approve them, or, ahem, modifying the original post to make comments look stupid.

I try not to do that last–but do choose in this case to use the blogger’s prerogative of adding to the post itself, not just commenting-on-comments.

My possibly-hasty reading of “the other posts” (setting aside Blake’s extended commentary for the moment) suggested to me that the writers were doing two things that caused a Reaganesque “there they go again” sense:

  • Assuming that e-paper/e-ink as a plausible replacement for print was finally Just Around the Corner. Which might be true–heck, I hope it is true–but I’ve been hearing the same thing for considerably more than a decade, and the existence of development kits doesn’t make me a true believer.
  • Discussing “digital ubiquity” in a way that seemed to suggest that everything else would be marginalized in a few years–that print collections would be essentially irrelevant, even if still there.

It’s quite possible that I was reading things into the messages. That happens with reading from the screen and posting offhand responses. Although, with at least one or two of the postings, I still get those sense fairly strongly.

If anyone believes I’m arguing that librarians should ignore digital possibilities, they’ve gone way beyond reading into my postings: That’s just wrong, flagrantly so. (If anyone believes that I’m arguing that many–most–innovations don’t work out in the marketplace, that’s absolutely true.) (And if anyone believes that I argue that, for most public librarians, treating print books as secondary is a good way to alienate your users…well, you’re right there as well.)

Want to set me up as an “only books matter” strawman? OK. I don’t know who that Walt Crawford actually is, but straw men are awfully convenient.

I used “and not or” as a summary of my credo for a long time. It still applies.

Sigh. I really do need to work on that fuller response. Maybe later in the blog. Maybe in the December C&I (not the November issue; that’s already starting the editing/paring stages.)

11 Responses to “This time for sure?”

  1. Fiona says:

    At a conference I attended recently, the results of a preliminary study into the impact of baby boomers’ retirement on the public library was discussed. Contrary to predictions of everyone being digital all the time, they predicted that library usage will increase significantly. Why?

    Retirees in service/information professions are used to having email, research tools, and information all the time – when they retire they are immediately cut off. The library is a logical source for information.

    They won’t have as much money as they did before, causing discretionary spending on books, magazines, media etc to decline so they will borrow instead.

    They will seek out places where they can communicate with eachother – the library is a good source for that.

    They will want travel information (this is a largely untapped resource in libraries IMHO- when I travel I go to the local library and I would love to see a section on local food, entertainment, maps, community information etc, not just local studies/history)

    The presentation was “When I’m 64: The Public Library after the Retirement of the Baby Boomers” at RAILS2 –

    As for me, I don’t use my local public library nearly as much since it was moved and was architecturally redesigned, ie unusable.

  2. What chaps my hide is that avowed technophiles like me get blamed for this kind of cloud-ten thinking. Those geeks. They can’t be trusted. They said ebooks were ‘way better than print and were going to take over the world, back in ’99.

    Well, you know what? I wasn’t saying that. The other ebook geeks I worked with weren’t saying that. We bloody well knew better, since we lived on the ragged edge of “but the tech won’t DO that.” Frankly, nobody asked us. Too busy listening with bated breath to hype-hype-hype marketing droids and obstinately clueless journos.

    I’m glad that institutional repositories and open access are largely an academia-internal phenomenon. I couldn’t take another idiotic hype wave.

    You want to talk about why digital text is cool? I’m your gal. You want to talk about why digital text has a long way to go? Ditto. You want to talk about differences between print and digital text, or readers’ experience of same? Sure thing. You want to talk about how libraries are participating in (not just reacting to) the creation and dissemination of digital text? Honey, I’m living it.

    You want me to issue proclamations despising print and welcoming its supposed death? Go AWAY.

  3. walt says:

    “Back in ’99”? Try back in ’92. By ’99, that particular wave of death-of-print had subsided into various ripples.

    Since I’ve always made my living through library technology and mostly, in the past, written about technology, I might qualify as a geek as well. (Well, I never wore a pocket protector and only carried two pens for about a year, but…) And “geeks” have always been on all sides of this set of issues.

    Fiona: Thanks for the useful comment. Oddly enough, most evidence and surveys seem to show that public libraries (at least in the U.S. and, I guess, in Australia–I can’t speak for the UK) are likely to continue to see huge and complex use. Every time library patrons are asked directly, they say they want books. Print books (and audiobooks and…).

    Anyway: Some day I might do a proper commentary…

  4. dchud says:

    It will be *very* interesting to see where things stand in 2010. Seriously, I’ll buy. 🙂

    If nothing else, you have to admit that the sheer velocity at which we’ve had this little conversation is disturbing.

    Regards, -Dan

  5. walt says:


    Apologies for the delay in that comment showing up: It was flagged for moderation. I have no idea why. (Well, it’s the first time you’ve left a comment, and sometimes that is an instant flag.) I approved it the second I got the email, of course.

    As for the potential velocity of net-based “conversations,” that is indeed an interesting and sometimes disturbing concept (which I’ve written about and will probably write more about). In this case, you’ve also seen the party-line effect: I “misquoted” you by probably overinterpreting a third party who had quoted you, and you interpreted the second comment (it wasn’t the first, from Fiona) as an attack on you–which I wouldn’t necessarily conclude.

    I know better than to interpret third-party statements. One problem with a blog is that it’s too easy to do something even though you know better… (I suppose I could start composing blog entries in Word instead of directly within WordPress, but if I’m in Word, I’m working on C&I or a column or a book or a speech or…)

    OK, here’s my mini-off-hand-prediction for 2010:

    Public libraries will be healthy in the U.S. (with exceptions, as always) and will be massively used as sets of services (many of them remotely available), as collections of print books and other media, and as places. Given what’s happened with Kepler’s here (where a long-standing independent bookstore closed, at least in part because the landlord raised the rents too high–and the bookstore has now reopened thanks to massive customer response), I believe print books themselves will be doing just fine as well. And I believe etext of various sorts will be used significantly more heavily than it is now, just as it’s used a lot more heavily now than it was five years ago–but I don’t believe the increase in that use will be geometric over that ten-year slice.

    And this is WAY too much to put in a comment-on-a-comment. If we’re at the same conference in 2010, I’ll buy the second round.

  6. I’m in for a round. I’m also a cheap date, since I don’t drink alcohol. 🙂

    Walt, I was still in college in ’92, and what I’m doing now wasn’t even a gleam in my eye, more’s the pity.

    Dan, that wasn’t aimed at you, and I’m sorry it came across so poorly. Much of what I remember of the promises of the late ’90s and early oughts is bound up in the dot-com boom, when lots of people were saying stupid things. I believe now, as I did then, that e-text has potential that we’ve barely begun to realize, but we’ve got to be a lot more patient about working out the design and production problems than we’ve heretofore been.

    And that was it, really; that’s what happened. Nobody had any patience with the tech people; nobody would listen long enough to what the blocks were and how long it would take to get past them. Sorry to have perpetuated the cycle.

  7. Straw men made of paper

    Okay, now this is a blog about digital/virtual reference, so we spend a lot of our time and electrons talking about new modes of reference activity that occur online, and how important it is that libraries and librarians understand the options and in

    Note from wcc: This oddly-truncated comment, which dropped into the “hold for moderation” slot, appears to be an attempt to simulate a linkback to this post (and W.a.R. doesn’t show linkbacks). I’m adding this note so that you can go read lbr’s accusation that I’m raising straw men–oh, me and “so many other people,” but the others aren’t mentioned by name. I’m apparently a convenient target.

  8. walt says:

    OK, I’ve read lbr’s essay.

    I would apologize for saying “can’t curl up in bed with it or read it in the bathtub” — except, of course, that I’ve never said that. Ever.

    And, you know what? I’ve never said that libraries and librarians should be “sitting back and keeping the dead trees company” (amusing that lbr says “print will thrive,” but then proceeds to assume “dead trees” will and should be marginalized–but maybe I’m reading into the comment). Ever.

    I have said, and will continue to say, that print resources are and will continue to be vital for public and (the social sciences and humanities portions of) academic libraries, and that while building new services and understanding new media are also vital–and I’ve done a lot of writing to try to introduce and explain new media over the years–there’s a considerable danger in treating both the current bookstock and the continuing building of the “long collection” as peripheral activities.

    To lesser or greater extents, the posts I indirectly referenced struck me as arguing that digital information will soon be the only really important aspect of libraries, including public libraries–that that’s all librarians should be paying attention to. Maybe I overinterpreted. As noted twice so far, it was an offhand, preliminary comment–and, after all, if blogs aren’t noted for hasty overinterpretation, no medium is.

    So, lbr, you’ve turned me into a straw man, arguing that we should just treasure those books and ignore everything else. Which I don’t believe (and never have).

    I still have trouble reading “digital ubiquity” as not marginalizing everything else, at least by implication. I also have trouble believing that such “ubiquity” is either right around the corner or likely to happen in a way that libraries can deal with effectively, since those who control the copyrights are pretty intent on seeing that fair use plays no part in digital usage and that as much as possible is pay-per-use or ongoing rental. Now there’s a set of issues librarians need to address…

  9. Thanks for reading, Walt. Yes, that was a trackback, and I’m going to put a link back to this post in the comments for mine so we can keep up the dialogue.

    Your response drove me to some more self-examination, and as I have now noted in the blog, I realize some of those “other people” are voices from whom I’ve heard echoes of these arguments in the past.

    What I’m perceiving from your post and responses is a sense that this is somehow a zero-sum game:
    – inferring that “while building new services… the current bookstock and continuing building of the ‘long collection'” would be viewed as “peripheral”
    – understanding “ubiquitous digital information” as “marginalizing everything else”

    Do you view this as a zero-sum game, where efforts placed toward building and enhancing digital services will inevitably subtract from the ongoing enhancement of print collections and offline service?

    Personally, I’m with you if we’re talking about “AND not OR”. Is that really what we’re talking about?

    Finally, w.r.t. “I also have trouble believing that such ‘ubiquity’ is… likely to happen in a way that libraries can deal with effectively, since those who control the copyrights are pretty intent on seeing that fair use plays no part in digital usage and that as much as possible is pay-per-use or ongoing rental…” That’s absolutely an issue we need to address, I agree. Certainly we need to address it from within the system, making consumers aware of their fair-use and first-sale rights and actively opposing rollbacks in those protections — but of course, that’s an uphill battle. I guess part of the reason I’m more optimistic about the future is that I’m inclined to cast my lot with the folks on the outside of that cabal — the consumers and the creators who are using and working on other models that make those rights harder to rescind, such as Open Access and the Creative Commons. “Ubiquitous digital information” is in part a result of a read-write environment, where direct connections between information producers and consumers will gradually erode the power of “those who control the copyrights” — at least, the ones who try to use them against us.

  10. walt says:

    No, I don’t see it as a zero-sum game; I hate zero-sum games.

    I do see it as a tension, particularly when some people arguing for more attention to digital futures (not necessarily the ones cited here) argue, implicitly or explicitly, that little or no attention need be paid to existing services. That’s when I get cranky, and maybe I’m tending to pick up that sense where it’s not intended.

    When you say a library’s web presence should be viewed as another branch, I’m with you all the way. When I hear implications that, for most people who count, in just a few years, the web presence will be the only aspect of the public library that’s of any real interest, I’m no longer on board.

    As you may (or may not?) know, I’ve spent a fair amount of words on the Creative Commons and the various pieces of open access. (Less on open access recently partly because Peter Suber and Charles W. Bailey, Jr. do such outstanding jobs, partly because I find Stevan Harnad so infuriating.) I’m an optimist by nature–drives my wife crazy–and I’m hopeful, but it is indeed an uphill battle.

    This is one of the more remarkable conversations in a blog where I’ve been delighted by the level of conversation, perhaps the more so because the blog entry that seems to have kicked it off was such an idle comment…

    The post is a pretty slender foundation for all that’s followed. That calls for a better post or series of posts, I suppose–except that to some extent those posts would be repeating stuff I’ve written over the past 13 years. I’m good (or bad, if you will) at repeating myself, but…

    Maybe I’m temporarily tone-deaf on what was implied by a couple of posts. Maybe Blake’s screed, which I still haven’t had time or patience to process properly, set me off on somewhat unrelated posts that didn’t deserve to be lumped in with it.

    [OK, there’s also my inclination to believe that 2010 is a pretty optimistic projection for truly ubiquitous use of high-quality e-paper and for anything like a “ubiquitous digital information” environment in any but a few highly-privileged enclaves of certain first-world nations–but that’s a separate set of issues. I think.]

  11. Straw men made of vapor

    So I had a great blogosphere-style conversation with Walt today, and what a pleasure. I freely admit that I committed a real communication blunder — instead of paying close attention to what Walt was saying and speaking to his points, I addressed

    Walt’s note: This one shouldn’t have been flagged for moderation (no internal link, and I approved a previous lbr post), but it was. Here’s the lbr post. (lbr: You should be able to include that link. At worst, it will cause the same moderation delay…)