For every amazing, wondrous benefit the Internet has afforded there’s a downside. Or so it seems.
We get news at lightning fast speed, but newspapers and magazine’s have gone from cash cows to the walking dead. We communicate instantly, but the Post Office and Hallmark Cards are slipping into irrelevancy. We access books and information with a single keystroke on a computer, but libraries are becoming more like museums in terms of foot traffic.
Speaking of which, are libraries becoming obsolete?
Not only is that debate raging on the worldwide web – Google the question – it’s being played out in neighborhoods, cities and small towns across the country.
“Forbes contributor Tim Worstall wants us to close public libraries and buy everyone an Amazon Kindle with an unlimited subscription,” begins a story last August in The Week. “‘Why wouldn’t we simply junk the physical libraries and purchase an Amazon Kindle Unlimited subscription for the entire country?’ he asks. Worstall points to substantial savings on public funds, arguing that people would have access to a much larger collection of books through a Kindle Unlimited subscription than they could get through any public library and that the government would spend far less on a bulk subscription for all residents than it ever would on funding libraries.”
Buying millions of Kindles seems extreme, but these are the kind of arguments being made by an increasingly large body of skeptics who think of public libraries as little more than a refuge for the poor, the elderly and the homeless.
Five years ago Lawrence voters approved an $18 million new library.
It opened last summer and has reportedly been kicking butt ever since. That’s certainly the impression library officials want to give locals and the media anyway.
Since reopening, attendance at the new Lawrence library is up 64 percent from 2013, with 150,000 people visiting the books bastion between its late July opening and early November.
Not too shabby.
Then again, in September 2013 the Lawrence library was scraping by in far smaller, temp digs formerly occupied by Borders Books. And while 150,000 visitors in a town of 90,000 and change may sound impressive at first blush, KC Confidential gets upwards of a quarter of a million unique visitors each month.
And while the pro library crowd manages to maintain a positive spin on Wikipedia, independent reports of falling attendance show that, “The number of people visiting a library at least once a year has dropped by 25% since records began in 2005-06, as the number of libraries has declined by 9% between 2005 and 2012,” The Guardian reported in 2013.
“In the The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) latest Taking Part survey, which measures public engagement with sports and the arts, 63.8% of people said they had not used a library in the year to the end of June 2013, compared with 63.0% in 2011-12, and 51.8% in the 2005-06 survey. In the past year, 16.1% of adults used a library website, up from 8.9% in 2005-06.
“According to a DCMS spokesman, the decline in visits predates recent library closures, and reflects changes in the public’s behaviour.”
The Lawrence Journal World choked out an attaboy editorial for the new library today, commending it for branching out in new directions to attract more members of the public.
“Libraries used to be all about books, but that isn’t the case any more,” it begins. “A recent Journal-World story about circulation trends at the Lawrence library showed that, although some patrons still were checking out books, many of the most popular items at the library were music CDs, movie DVDs and audio books. The movie ‘Frozen,’ which topped the list, was checked out 311 times in 2014.”
Hold it right there.
The future of the new library is CDs, DVDs and Audiobooks? Please.
When’s the last time you checked out the CD section Sam’s Club? It’s almost nonexistent.
Meanwhile pay-per-view movies and digital streaming are choking the last breath out of DVD sales. Does anybody today under 18 even remember a company called Blockbuster?
Ten years ago Blockbuster had 9,000 stores and 60,000 employees. When the last Blockbuster store closed in Hawaii in 2013, the last film rented out was the 2013 comedy This Is the End.
It’s a changing world, and the people most likely to check out CDs, DVDs and audiobooks these days are oldsters and poor folks. Not exactly a rock solid foundation for the future.
Ever attend a library function? With the odd exception, it’s like Senior Citizen Central.
Libraries are exploring new frontiers but there’s only so much you can do given that your underlying core product is fast becoming irrelevant to an extent.
For example the Lawrence library is glomming onto an online class in Health & Wellness that K-State is offering. The class is open to anyone, but the library is offering an option for up to 20 people to be part of a group that meets every Wednesday afternoon for seven weeks to complete the course and listen to speakers from Lawrence Memorial Hospital.
Twenty people in a town of 90,000-plus, that’s a pretty small play by almost any measure, and one likely to get snapped up more by seniors with time on their hands than cutting edge college kids.
It’s in a great location in downtown Lawrence and in a weird, futuristically funky way, going there and wrapping your hands around actual books, newspapers and magazines can provide the sort of retro thrills many 20-somethings and 30-somethings are finding in vinyl record albums.
But vinyl records are a niche product, just as CDs and DVDs are fast becoming niche products.
The $64 million question:
What are we going to do with all these brick and mortar buildings in a near future where everything from groceries to to sex toys to prescription drugs are moments away from our front doors with the single stroke of a keyboard?