Is the Traditional Library Obsolete?

Commentary, Municipal Government, Stephen Leahey

Every city wants an imaginative skyline that bespeaks a progressive and cultured citizenry. Winnipeggers of all callings, from local reading circles to civic leaders and politicians at every level of government, are working to raise $25 million for the construction of a new downtown Millennium Library to fulfill that aspiration.

The vision of a new library, best conveyed by the slogan – books, books and more books – 250, 000 to be exact, originated in the Winnipeg Library Board’s desire to:

  • address the age of the current library and the inadequacy of its facilities;
  • provide access for all, especially the poor and disadvantaged, to the best minds our cultures have produced;
  • catch up with other Canadian towns and cities – many much smaller than Winnipeg – presently enjoying superior facilities;
  • increase support and future job opportunities for librarians;.
  • furnish a hundred or more Internet-connected computers for the many who cannot individually afford their own hardware and services; and
  • bolster civic pride by endowing the downtown core with a symbol of our communal vitality.
  • The impetus for many libraries in North America came from steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in our great-grandparents’ time, an era of high communications costs when poor roads and slow mail service isolated towns and villages, horses outnumbered people and the telegraph served more of the country than the telephone.

    Having witnessed so many changes over just a few generations, might we not ask if it is time to rethink the traditional library and its modus operandi?

    Today’s Informational Exchange Differs from that of our Great-Grandparents’ Time

    In 2002, there are several technologies and trends that will, over the next five years, transform and, in some instances, render obsolete the traditional functions of libraries and librarians:

    1. The reach, capacity, functionality and searchability of the Internet – the world’s largest library – continue to grow, making the library facilities of any city, university or corporation seem trivial by comparison.
    2. Computers are becoming so powerful they will produce 3-D imagery and run movies and videos that will convey knowledge and skills far beyond anything books can impart.
    3. Computer prices are expected to decrease so rapidly that they will near zero within about five years, the new value lying in the leasing of software from central storage farms.
    4. E-books are approaching the stage where they will offer bibliophiles the feel of real books, enhanced by built-in dictionaries, variable fonts, lighted backgrounds, videos and hundreds of books and magazines.
    5. Interactive education and training, already making inroads into the traditional domains of colleges and universities, will have a similar impact on libraries.

    Modern Technology has Made the Library of Andrew Carnegie’s Time Obsolete

    Historically, public libraries have performed two main functions – lending out books and providing reference services. On top of that, they have usually set aside space for such social activities as checkers and chess, concerts and public lectures.

    As astounding and disconcerting as most of us over forty-five may find it, these traditional raisons detre will soon fade away. Not only is the Internet about to supersede our established reference services, but the pace of technological change and its economic consequences will lead, within two decades at the outside, to the end of the lending library we have known for generations. The e-book will be the principal agent of change.

    Those who are attached to the traditional book consider the prospect of its being displaced by an electronic gadget – an outlandish notion as pure Buck Roger’s science fiction. They find the e-book cumbersome and cold, without the closeness, feel and smell of paper and lacking the capacity to make them share the author’s thoughts and feelings. All this may be true, yet events are in train that will change the view of the majority and lead to the dominance of the e-book.

    The e-book is evolving: weighing less than an average hardbound but affording readers all the gee-whiz features mentioned above, it will become a portable, ultra-convenient personal library.

    Cost advantages, however, will be the deciding factor. Today, a typical book is written, edited, printed, bound, stored, marketed, distributed to retailers and then, it is hoped, sold – a cumbrous, costly, time-consuming process that is difficult to change once initiated. Now consider the e-book alternative. The author, often working with an editor, would place his or her book online and market it on the Internet. If changes were required, they could be made readily, easily and inexpensively.

    In the not too distant future, entrepreneurs will turn the e-book concept into commercial reality. After that, all but the most extreme bound-book die-hards will find prices 75% off hardcover irresistible. (Imagine buying a newly released bestseller for nine dollars.) At the same time, a generation of young people who are well disposed to computer technology will be coming into the reading public.

    Many will remain unconvinced even though only a marginal marketing change has already dislocated the Canadian book-distribution system and raised Amazon – an American company that has never owned a single store north of the border – to prominence. Economics, as is so often the case, will write the final chapter.

    Even the remaining, if subsidiary, function of furnishing a meeting place for social activities, it can be argued, could be performed by other agencies (clubs, fraternal and sororal societies, drop-in centres, cafes and restaurants etc.).

    Since we know the traditional library is on the way out, why are we still talking about the need for 250,000 books? The vast majority of these, being reference works, would never even have to be opened. At, say, $40 per volume and a total outlay of $10 million over and above the cost of the building, Winnipeggers would see little or no cultural, educational or financial return on their investment – to say nothing of the overhead expense of heating, maintaining and dusting the practically unused storage areas.

    A Library/Database will Make Winnipeg a Global Leader

    Instead of perpetuating an obsolete model, planners should project where change will take us in the next decade and devise ways we could embrace it rather than turn our backs on it. Instead of building a large general reference library, the Millennium team could establish an extensive, one-of-a-kind, world-class database on, for example, construction in a cold climate, grains and enriched nutrients, biomedicine and the economic life of northern cities. Unlike the stand-alone libraries of old that collected and catalogued general information – now everywhere on the Internet – a unique resource of that sort would interleave with universities, colleges, unions, government departments, museums and businesses.

    Such a restructuring would require a collaborative, stressful rethinking on the part of the community as we redefined our role in the Information Age. The effort, however, would generate economic spin-offs as Winnipeg turned into the world centre of a lucrative branch of the knowledge industry.

    Alternately, pursuing a policy abstracted from the revolutionary changes going on about us would saddle the city with ongoing and increasing operational expenses. Even more serious: diverting resources and the good will of the community from other, more promising initiatives for the (estimated) three years needed to complete the project would mean foregoing the opportunity to leverage Winnipeg into a competitive position in the knowledge industry.

    Trying to follow the path of our great-grandparents will lead us to a dead end. Taking the harder, riskier path of innovation will lead us into an enriched cultural environment and renewed economic relevance.

    Perspectives are commentaries by the research advisory board and expert guest commentators. They do not necessarily represent the opinions of the board of directors of the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.