The Browser

The Modern Library

Will anyone borrow books in the future?

The battle over Internet censorship has taken up residence in your neighborhood public library. Conservatives in Congress and elsewhere are demanding that libraries apply “filters” to Internet terminals available to minors. Ernest Istook, a Republican representative from Oklahoma, recently proposed denying federal funds to any library that fails to use filters. Istook’s amendment wound up on the cutting room floor when the budget bill was finalized this week, but it may re-emerge next year. Meanwhile in Virginia, someone has sued his local library for filtering Internet content. In California, someone else has sued hers for not doing so. The American Library Association, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, takes the absolutist position that any restriction on library Internet access–including one narrowly tailored to keep children away from pornography–violates First Amendment freedoms.

This debate became inevitable when public libraries began to get wired, a development that Al Gore and Newt Gingrich both consider crucial to our country’s future, and which Bill Gates has set up a foundation to support. But down the road, public libraries face a bigger and more vexing question than this rehash of old censorship debates. Why, if libraries are growing more concerned about the provision of Internet access and less concerned about the circulation of books, must they be housed in buildings with walls? Someone who uses his neighborhood branch to surf the Net doesn’t really depend on the library the way that someone who went to do research or borrow out of print books did. He merely uses an inefficient subsidy for something that is increasingly cheap and easy to do at home–and which could soon be subsidized directly at far lower expense. In other words, if the public library of the future is mainly about free online access, it’s in a mess of trouble.

Another technological advance threatens libraries. On Oct. 23, a company called NuvoMedia rolled out the first, first-generation digital reading device, a $500 appliance called the Rocket eBook. It’s Version 1.0–expensive, a bit clunky and, according to previews, not really pleasant enough for pleasure reading. But within a few years, such devices are likely to be a viable, even preferable, way to read books. Dick Brass, Microsoft’s vice president for technology development, says that the technical hurdles of screen quality and battery life have been largely surmounted. The question is how soon a comfortable device can be built for $100 and how long it will take for a large number of titles to become available. The probable answer is not long. Already, a nonprofit organization called Project Gutenberg has digitized over 1,000 public domain works ranging from Paradise Lost to Tom Swift & His Aerial Warship. Publishers are scrambling to put current books on sale in electronic form. Brass predicts that you’ll be able to get 50,000 titles electronically–more than you can find in an average Barnes & Noble franchise–in two years.

Of course, there are some big issues that need to be negotiated before e-books put libraries and bookstores out of business. You may be able to digitize the 16 million books in the Library of Congress for a mere billion dollars, but much of that material falls under copyright protection. While publishers accept sequential borrowings a single copy of a book from a library, they can’t very well provide free universal access to everything in their catalogs. And while e-books have tremendous appeal in theory–imagine an entire library that weighs a pound, is word-searchable, and can be read in the dark (and, at long last, a copy of Slate that you can take to the bathroom)–readers simply may not cotton to them. The etopians who are certain that digital reading devices are about to take over probably underestimate the doggedness of ingrained human habits. So we should pose this as a what-if and not a what-when question. If electronic reading supplants print as the primary means by which people absorb written texts, what becomes of the venerable public library?

L ibrary workers, who recognize the possibility, are doing what people in threatened professions do. They begin from the assumption that they will always be crucially necessary and then try to figure out what they will be necessary for. Unsurprisingly, librarians have reached a consensus that technological progress demands an expansion, not a contraction, of their role. The disciples of Melvil Dewey would have you know that they are no longer underpaid scriveners on index cards. In fact, they no longer want to be called librarians at all. They’re now “information specialists,” who understand search engines and retrieval systems and sort out good information from bad on the Internet. They aspire to the rise in status and income that computer geeks benefited from in the 1980s.

It is probably true that we will need skillful librarians, and maybe even more librarians, in etopia. While doing research on the Internet can be vastly more time- and cost-efficient than doing it in the stacks, it requires a good deal of instruction. In an unfamiliar world, we need guides all the more. What is less clear is that we will need libraries–or at least the same kind of libraries we have now in the quantity we now have them.

There is little cause for anyone to fret about the high-end institutions–academic, research, and specialized libraries will be no less necessary. Those who seek to understand the past are always going to want to examine original documents, manuscripts, and hard-copy publications. The novelist Nicholson Baker, an eloquent critic of what libraries have done in the name of modernization, is certainly right about how foolish many great libraries were to destroy their card catalogs after transferring them to electronic form. As Baker argued in a 1994 article in TheNew Yorker, the old cards are not just eerily beautiful artifacts but also important historical documents. But Baker was on shakier ground in his 1996 article attacking the new, post-Gutenberg era San Francisco public library for emphasizing electronic research at the expense of old books. Why must a nonacademic library maintain, at great public expense, a vast store of volumes that no one uses?

It is the more ordinary libraries–the 9,000 public and branch libraries in American towns and cities–that face a real threat of redundancy. That is not to say that these institutions don’t have functions beyond lending out books. A friend of mine who used to teach in an overcrowded New York City school makes the point that for a lot of poor kids, the library is the only place to do homework after school. Public schools should provide an afternoon haven, but in the real world, they don’t. It would be terrible to get rid of an institution that works without figuring out how to reproduce its effectiveness. Libraries are also places where immigrants go to take English classes and where illiterates learn to read. They are meeting places that cut against the isolation of modern life. In cities, the downtown public library is the rare place where social classes mix.

But even with the reservoir of good will public libraries have, such ancillary functions aren’t enough to keep them alive if their basic purpose fades. Our public libraries were built so that citizens, and especially young people, could enhance their lives through access to the written word. The day may be not so far off when we can accomplish this function better with a subsidized Internet account and a free digital reading device.