You Have Two, Maybe Three Years…


… before libraries become irrelevant.

When I came across the December 14, 2012 article at Publishers Weekly website, the headline – You Have Two, Maybe Three Years… by Peter Brantley – caught my attention.

He was writing about “… a small, invitation-only meeting convened late last month in the Netherlands by the International Federation of Library Associations (IFLA) … for an exhausting, engrossing three days of debate. But after many hours of discussion and examination … none of us was left feeling that libraries were firmly seizing control of their future.” [Emphasis added.]

The stunning conclusion to his article was what really resounded in my professional core.

The most serious threat facing libraries does not come from publishers, we argued, but from e-book and digital media retailers like Amazon, Apple, and Google. While some IFLA staff protested that libraries are not in the business of competing with such companies, the library representatives stressed that they are. If public libraries can’t be better than Google or Amazon at something, then libraries will lose their relevance. It’s good that the library e-book issue has heated up over the past year, and not just in the U.S. but globally.

But libraries have dithered for far too long – it is now time for action. No matter how glorious the vision of local 3D printing, community gaming, or how critical the literacy training and job assistance libraries offer, reading lies at the heart of the library mission – and as the world goes digital, we cannot let the library become a pile of dusty books. We must make the library the most cool and awesome space it has ever been.

But absent immediate innovation, libraries are going to be increasingly unable to meet the expectations of their patrons, and if such a breakthrough cannot come in the next two or three years, libraries risk losing their central place in the world of literature. That would be a great loss. [Emphasis added.]

This is by no means the first or even a new call to action, but it may be one of the more authoritarian assertions to date pointedly written that time is running out for libraries to find their place in the community they serve. I for one seriously wonder what it will take for library leaders to recognize the future challenges and adopt a vision to overcome them and save the library. Traditional librarianship is a relic of the past century. Creative and innovative thinking with visionary leadership and bold action is the only approach that will save libraries.

14 Comments

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14 responses to “You Have Two, Maybe Three Years…

  1. In my opinion and experience as a library consultant for the last 7 years, the most serious threat facing many libraries today is librarians and their lack (fear) of bold, innovative, creative approaches to addressing the challenges presented by Amazon, Google and publishers of print and e-content. We need a major paradigm shift!

    As heretical as it may seem, I have suggested before that public libraries and library leadership reach out to Amazon and see how we might join forces and provide for our content accesss needs (print and digital). We will only succeed if we alone look out for the interests of our constituents and our role in providing access – whatever the definition – in the tradition of democracy, equality and lifelong learning.

    • Couldn’t agree with you more. Although, I’m skeptical of the “strategic partnership” you suggest. How would that significantly benefit the library, without jeopardizing their overall lending capabilities, or destroying their budget?

      • We don’t know until we approach and explore the idea. Amazon becomes the library content supplier as better price points for print and digital content than currently provided by library jobbers. In terms of lending capabilities, there may be an opportunity and benefit for Amazon to shift their paradigm for lending. I can see the publishers threatening to not sell to Amazon but what would that gain them in the realm of the bottom line and public perception given the importance the public puts on libraries. Nothing ventured – nothing gained.

  2. Frank

    Dr. Steve you have mentioned it, Laura just confirmed it, there is some serious entrepreneurial skills missing with library administrators. The problem is that they get a budget and the money from the city or county commissioners and all they have to do is spent it. If they had to earn the money in terms of sales and profits they would be jumping at the chance to partner with Google and Amazon. Why? and How? Libraries are already the retail stores that have created patron bases and they are in every community across the country. Have Google and Amazon sell advertising on the libraries web portals and then have Google and Amazon pay libraries commissions for accessing their patron base. Then when a patron orders an e-book from their local library send the digital signal to Google or Amazon and all of a sudden there are no more silly holds on e-books. Its service in 3 seconds on e-materials and loans are a thing in the past. Every library patron has a digital library card number and its connected to their local library and the local community keeps their control of their already established Amazon certified franchise partner. Quit relying on the taxpayers and get some administrators who are revenue generators and libraries are the hottest new franchise in America. Google and Amazon see an entrepreneur when they see one they just can’t see any with library administrators. Take away the free money pit and libraries are saved.

    • The government sector has always had the same problem with bottom line profitability – it doesn’t exist. If you’re suggesting that libraries SELL their patron information, you should know that is illegal. Library patron information is protected by GRAMA laws. One of the reasons public libraries are tax supported is so they can provide tax payers with a service, so becoming a for profit franchise would jeopardize that status. Your entrepreneurship is commendable, but has to be applied within legal limits.

      • Frank

        Dr. Steve,
        If laws are the problem in saving libraries through public and private partnerships then the whole non for profit thing has to be looked at again. Non for profit organizations receive and survive on billions of dollars that are donated from for profit corporations and small businesses and philanthropists. These non for profits do great work yet still have to ask for volunteers. Pay all volunteers a minimum wage, interns included and you have America working again. Theater preservationists are saving old theaters by creating hybrid ways of raising capital and running them I’m sure the same could be done for libraries. It would be better to mesh with the people who may eliminate you then not do nothing at all and succumb to it by the patrons own individual choice.

  3. Frank

    It is mind boggling isn’t it, Dr. Steve.
    If the patron is initiating the order or request for the e-material through the library with the use of the library card and the library orders the materials through Google or Amazon it is the same if the library orders it through Baker and Taylor, they are for profit suppliers. I don’t see why Google or Amazon would have to access the patron file. The library receives a credit or commission on the patrons request which the library controls and would want too. It could arrive under the libraries order item no. I don’t think they would care who requested the e-materials, they would want the partnership and the business. I’m sure others have found a way of hiding patrons names and receiving materials. I just don’t understand the logic of publishers holding up service levels of response and punishing the authors royalties by creating rules that create holds on digital materials that can be delivered in a second. I buy and download e-books from sources like Better World Books in two seconds. No one will deal with a library if there is a hold on a e-book. It’s silly and not service oriented. Publishers are shooting themselves in the foot and the future will not be kind to them.

  4. mlaiuppa

    I don’t know what libraries this speculation covered but all I can say is…not school libraries or librarians.

    I’ve taught in high school, middle school and am currently at an elementary school library. Kids love books. Even if they can read them online they still want print books. My population loves to own them but they can’t afford to buy books on amazon anytime they like. So they use the library a lot.

    As for me…I teach the research process. I just finished up lessons on plagiarism and citations. I’ll be starting on outlines and notetaking this week.

    I teach information literacy and technology skills. Of course I also manage the collection, do book talks and we’re gearing up for Read Across America next week.

    So all I can say to my colleagues who feel threatened by this is….time to market yourself. And be sure you have something to market.

  5. Jean Costello

    Hi – I’ve made similar “meaningful decline of the institution” predictions. I cite the close of this decade (2019) as a time when many of us will begin looking back and wondering where the libraries went … just as we do now with independent pharmacies. I’d be curious to know if your readers see the same similarities I do: http://www.radicalpatron.com/public-libraries-and-independent-pharmacies/.

    I also believe we’ve entering an era of “positive disruption” that provides a window of opportunity for public libraries. The key developments that have dramatically changed our lives in America have already occurred.
    - The internet and fast, cheap, digital technologies
    - Consolidation of major industries (most notably retail and banking)
    - The replacement or infiltration of public space by private concerns (huge shopping malls becoming the place where people conduct a range of activities, corporate subsidies and branding of sports stadiums, municipal recreation areas, etc), commercial coffee shops in academic libraries, etc.

    These changes have astounded many of us, disrupted us personally, professionally and publicly; and re-structured the way we enact most aspects of our everyday lives. The “sea change” has already occurred and now we’re going about the slow, measured process of attenuation. We’re thinking about the personal and social implications of our “always on, digitally connected” society. We’re talking about the homogenization of America where the same strip malls dotting the landscape from coast-to-coast or derivative reality TV shows dominate programming on network & cable. We’re beginning to question the incredible power over our personal lives and government of “too big to fail” commercial entities like banks, energy and telcom companies.

    The time is ripe for examining the role of our libraries in this ‘ecosystem’. Do we need them … and if so, what for? And, what can we have them do that they’ll do really well?

    I believe our public libraries can be incredibly valuable and vital institutions in this climate … if they abandon their current strategy of:
    1) providing commodity materials and services that commercial entities already do better than they ever can;
    2) trying to be everything to everybody.

    Examples = the undue resource allocation on widely promoted and available “best-sellers”; weak digital content platforms like OverDrive & Freegal; passport services, craft and exercise classes, etc. Libraries tout the success of these services and programs because they represent high usage among library patrons. The blind spot seems to be in recognizing the patrons libraries never attract because people are meeting these needs elsewhere more efficiently at low-cost.

    Instead, I favor asking “what canl ibraries do well that no other commercial or municipal organization can or will”? This is incredibly rich territory in my view. For instance, what if libraries hung their hat on providing only content deemed outstanding according to a set of transparent standards they create or endorse? What if they became the “go-to” place for discovering great books/magazines/etc that would never have seen the light of day otherwise — effectively saying: “go to Amazon for what’s popular or common – come here for what’s good.”

    Bookstores and big box retailers cannot pursue this strategy because they need to turn a profit. Their mandate is to move as many units as possible without regard to quality. “50 Shades” or “Romeo & Juliet” – it makes no difference as long as it sells. We’ve exempted our public libraries from those particular demands and I think it gives them the freedom and obligation to pursue a different course. Their future, IMO, depends on their ability to re-claim and embrace this unique mandate.

    • Thanks Jean, you’ve presented many great points and much to think about. I’m not sure I agree with “We’ve exempted our public libraries from those particular demands…” because meeting the demands of the community the library serves is exactly what will make it relevant and worth funding and supporting. As far as becoming a place where people go for “what’s good,” read my post from last October, American Librarianship – 19th vs 21stCentury.

      • Hi Steve – how true that libraries have their own “particular demands”.

        In my mind, one of the most challenging is meeting the range of expectations patrons and employees have for them: to have the latest and greatest and remain Alexandria; to bring the world’s resources to our doorstep and curate collections & programs that reflect local tastes; to cultivate our highest standards & ideals and let us talk loudly on our cell phones, eat fast food on premises and use the computers for a range of questionable activities.

        How can relevance, funding and support be maintained in the face of these expectations?

        What I was suggesting in my earlier comment is that we have a window of opportunity to address this intractable dilemma. I spoke about a process of attenuation … of sorting things out. During this period, the public will make determinations about what to invest in and what to let go. Some will be made deliberately and others will be made because we failed to deliberate. My concern for libraries is that even though they merit investment we will end up letting them go because we never got around to focusing on them during the sorting era.

        One of my pipe dreams is that we consider the poverty and riches of our public library system. Individually most libraries operate on very tight budgets and yet nationally we spend a fortune on them (total revenue for U.S. public libraries was $11.59 billion in FY2009 according to the IMLS Public Library Survey). I’d love to see a national dialogue initiated that considers our collective library resources, challenges and opportunities and posits a new structure that would enable every public library to:
        - gain efficiencies and sophistication without compromising authenticity and local goverance;
        - provide valuable services and materials that are unavailable elsewhere (an obvious benefit to communities and something that would increase the likelihood that the public would find libraries relevant and worth funding and supporting);
        - thrive instead of merely survive.

        Wishful thinking, I know :)

  6. Jamie Salcedo

    Great post Dr. Matthews (the other comments are great as well!). I have seen more libraries selling their books in the last few years, just because so many are not seeing any use in years. At think at this point the safest ones are reference books, but even with forensic science centers and other scientific organizations using PDFs and sites like PubMed, those will probably go away as well.

  7. Carla Ehrenreich

    I have been thinking about applying hard data to book purchasing. If we look at what actually circulates I suspect that it is more likely to be the top ten that the high-quality hidden gems.

    Who are libraries for? The core library users are those who can’t afford to buy their own books – mostly because they read too many (It could also be because they are poor). If you only read two or three books a year Amazon is the obvious choice but if you read five or ten a week only the wealthiest patron could afford to buy their own.

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