With apologies to Mark Twain, the rumors of the death of libraries have been greatly exaggerated, especially in the last week. Mark Shatzkin first predicted the death of libraries in a Globe and Mail interview this week with the statement “libraries make no sense in the future” and then followed it up on his blog yesterday stating “it will be hard to find a public library 15 years from now”. Pretty scary stuff for a librarian or library patron, no?
Except I have heard this argument again and again for the last 15 years. In fact, I suspect as libraries and librarians have faced every new technological change of the last century (microfilming, cheaper publishing methods, automation, the Internet) the same “libraries will be dead in 15 years” statement was uttered by someone. The facts prove otherwise. Libraries have weathered these changes, albeit as changed organizations, and have come out stronger because of them (for the most part).
Shatzkin attempts to tie the decline of bookstores to a decline in libraries, but to do so is comparing oranges and tangerines. Both are similar in the provision of books to the public, but libraries provide much more in terms of service, public space, and support. Bookstores are on the decline because of bad business decisions and a reliance on antiquated supply chain and distribution methods. In contrast, public libraries have been on the rise, in terms of usage and materials circulation, because even though technology seems to be pervasive in contemporary culture, the public needs spaces to collaborate, congregate, build knowledge, and synthesize information. These are the true raisons d’etre of public libraries, and anyone seeking to boil libraries down to simple book distribution is uninformed at best.
Public libraries will certainly change in the next 15 years, as they have the last couple of centuries. However, rumors of their demise are and always have been greatly exaggerated.